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Jason Day's long and heartbreaking road to becoming a major champion

After family tragedy and several years of close calls at major championships, Jason Day realized his dream by winning the PGA in a record 20-under.

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

HAVEN, Wis.-- I watched Jason Day the most out of anyone at Whistling Straits this week. Day was paired with Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler the first two days, so it was easy to convince myself to follow that group. On Sunday, I spent the afternoon following Day and Jordan Spieth around the course as they pushed each other in a two-man race for the Wanamaker Trophy.

Day was able to hold off the best competition in the world and win by three strokes to secure his first major victory at a record-breaking 20-under par. As soon as it ended, I bolted towards the media room knowing that while Day would be there as the same person, we'd see him through a different lens, this time as a major champion.

It was hard to figure out what drew me to him this week before he got the lead and became the favorite. To better understand it, I had to go back a bit.

★★★

Jason Day lost his dad to stomach cancer when he was just 11 years old. Growing up in less than ideal circumstances, Day fell off the rails after the loss. He became an alcoholic at 12 years old, and was getting in fights at school and home. His mother was left with no options and took out a second mortgage on the house, so she could send Jason to an international boarding school known for grooming top athletes.

It was a difficult time for Day, but he acknowledged that if it hadn't happened, things would have been remarkably different.

"I've said it before, but just the journey that I've been on, knowing that when my father passed away, there was -- I wouldn't have been here if my father didn't pass away," Day told reporters as he sat next to his new trophy. "And that's just because that door closed for me, but another opportunity opened up for me."

As he rose up the golf ranks, Day encountered a different kind of heartache. He broke through during the 2010 PGA Championship to tally his first top-10 finish. He then had to go through eight similar finishes -- several of which he held leads late in the weekend -- before holding a major trophy of his own. There were times when Day felt like maybe he wasn't good enough to finish off these types of tournaments. For a guy that often tried to stay in the present, the present wasn't feeling like such a good place.

Still, through all of that Day felt like something big was just around the corner.

"The biggest thing that prepares you for something like this is just the sheer experience of failure, looking at failure not as a negative but as a positive. Knowing that you can learn from anything, even if it's bad or good. And that really gets you mentally tough. Being close at the U.S. Open, being close at the Open Championship this year, being close at Augusta, all that has -- and I said it earlier this week, where I feel like all these experiences that I had is going to get me up for something big in the future, and for me it happened this week."

All this planning and waiting doesn't keep Day from slowing down and staying in the present. On Thursday, he pulled a drive into the left rough and had to ask the crowd to adjust itself so that he could have a proper line to the flag. Being that the crowd was primarily from Wisconsin, it was slow to move out of the way, about which Day joked, "I mean, I could definitely hit it into the grandstands if you want me to." The crowd eventually made room for him and he launched one of his towering iron shots to within birdie range on the green.

On the 11th hole on Sunday, Day hit a mammoth drive that only left him a wedge into the 573-yard par-5. Jordan Spieth recounted the moment they spotted the ball.

"The tee shot on 11. The tee shot on 11, if he gets a little off line there, either way, he has to lay up and it's probably a par. I thought at the time my ball was still going to be okay. It was going to be good enough to reach the green. Got a tough break in the rough to the side. But when he hit that tee ball and I walked up and saw where it was, I turned to him, I actually out loud turned to him and said, 'holy sh*t!' you know, and I yelled it over to him and I said, 'you've got to be kidding me.' And then he gave me a little bicep curl."

Day would go on to birdie the hole and continue to create separation between him and the stacked field down the stretch. Whenever a player trailing him would make a move, he'd be right there with an answer.

As he walked up the 18th and addressed his putt, he became emotional.

After trying and coming up short so many times, there he was with the title of major champion in his clutches and the reality of his struggles and dedication to move past them coming into view. His team was there with him, as they have been -- particularly caddie Col Swatton, a surrogate father of sorts -- for a long time now.

"To be able to share it with them, know the heartaches that we have been through together or that I've been through, they have been through with me," Day said. "To be able to finish it off the way I did and have Col with me, but also having Bud and Ellie in the stands and my son, Dash, watching, and knowing that this is the time and this is going to happen this time was something that you can never forget. I mean, it's going to -- I'm going to think about it for the rest of my life and I know, I know I did it and I know we did it together."

★★★

I stood behind the 18th green just kind of staring out over Whistling Straits one last time, trying to absorb all I had seen over the last four days.  So much was swirling around my head, except for the clarity that Day had finally broken through and achieved something he wanted to achieve so desperately. All golf tournaments have a winner, but at the end of this one, the result felt more satisfying than normal. Sometimes the good guys are easy to follow.

★★★

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