Day Relishes Challenge, and Chance to Rest

Jason Day fired a third-round 66 on Saturday to vault back into U.S. Open contention. (USGA/Darren Carroll)
Jason Day fired a third-round 66 on Saturday to vault back into U.S. Open contention. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – Sometimes it isn’t only about what you shoot but when you shoot it.

Not only did Jason Day’s third-round 66 at Oakmont Country Club move him into a tie for eighth place when play was suspended because of darkness at 8:49 p.m. Saturday, six of the seven players in front of him will have to come back and complete the third round early Sunday morning.

The shadow Day cast as he spoke to reporters was caused by a light bank, not the setting sun, and, after three days in which play was altered because of weather or its consequences, that might have been as good news as his 5-under score.

“They’re going to be waking up around 5 o’clock to play the rest of their holes,” Day said. “It’s going to be warm tomorrow and they have to come back and play 18 holes in the afternoon. It may be physically or mentally a little bit tougher for those guys that have to come back and finish in the a.m.”

Day’s 66, on top of a 1-under 69 he finished off early Saturday morning, has drastically changed the outlook for the world’s top-ranked player, who is looking for his second major title. Day was tied for 100th after an opening 76 and tied for 45th following the second round.

At 1-over 211 and currently trailing Shane Lowry – who has completed 14 holes of the third round – by six strokes, Day would make history if he comes back to win the championship. Day trailed by 10 shots after the first round; Jack Fleck, who was nine back after the first round in 1955 at The Olympic Club before defeating Ben Hogan in a playoff, has made up the largest gap over the final 54 holes.

Winner of the 2015 PGA Championship with a record-setting score, Day wanted to get to even par with 18 holes left after his poor start in order to have a chance to contend in the final round. Although a bogey on his 16th hole late Saturday (the par-4 seventh) sabotaged that goal for the 28-year-old Australian, his optimism about catching up hadn’t waned.

“Shoot anything under par here, you’re definitely moving up a lot,” Day said. “The first round kind of killed me but hopefully I give myself an opportunity tomorrow. Even par was the goal I was trying to reach. But I can’t be aggressive and silly out there and start firing at pins and making silly mental errors.”

In addition to being able to get a normal night’s sleep and go through a normal routine prior to starting the final round, Day also has the advantage of having won a major title – something none of the golfers in front of him have done. And Day also has two runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open (2011, 2013) and tied for ninth last year at Chambers Bay despite suffering vertigo.

“It depends on how they look at it,” Day said of the challengers ahead of him. “If they think they’re ready to win a major, then it’s obviously going to be tougher because they’re going to be focused and ready. I don’t think it really matters when it’s just mentally and physically grueling. Not only out [on the course] but at nighttime, you’re always thinking about it.”

Day certainly will have some good thoughts from play Saturday afternoon, when his game was starkly different from the first round, when his “mindset felt a bit cloudy” as he often found himself between clubs on approaches. He started fast, with birdies on four of his first five holes, then missed a 6-footer on his eighth hole. The highlight of his round came on the par-5 fourth hole, where he sank a curling, downhill 20-footer from the fringe after hitting a 260-yard 4-iron on his second shot.

“It was a tough putt, but one of those where you pick up and run with it because you’re really not expecting to make an eagle there,” said Day, “especially where I was.”

As is his tendency, Day was hawking the leader boards as he climbed onto them Saturday. “I feel if I can just put my name up there, hopefully they’ll start to slow down a little bit.”

Day is ready for the rigors of the final round.

“Hopefully at the end of the day I’m under par somewhere and that definitely gives me a shot,” Day said. “I just want it to play hard and fast, and I think the harder, the better, like a normal U.S. Open Sunday should be. Even though it is hard and stressful, I just enjoy those times.”

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.