October 21, 2019

Jason Day Wins, Tiger Emerges Healthy – Both Can Consider Challenge a Success

INZAI, Japan — Jason Day summoned two disparate up-and-downs from bunkers to win MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club on Monday. One was as routine as it gets for a tour pro—a lob wedge that led to a winning tap-in birdie on the par-5 18th. The other one was the type of shot you’d dare your buddy to hit after a few back-nine beers.

“I haven’t hit a bunker shot with a 6-iron in probably eight years,” Day said of his play on 14. You’d have no idea given how easy he made it look. He squatted—“I felt like I was sitting on the sand,” he said—opened his clubface up, nipped it perfectly, then used that same 6-iron to sink the par putt.

That type of short-game wizardy is what allowed Day to turn a so-so round into $210,000 and a victory over Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama.

It was only fitting that the standout shot from the day was one you’d never see in a stroke-play (or match-play) event. There was nothing conventional about this spectacle, which kicked off the PGA Tour’s official debut in the golf-crazy nation of Japan. Not the foursome, which grouped together four stars from four different continents. Not the setting, which needed floodlights to illuminate the final two holes. And not the atmosphere, which felt more like a $35-dollar match than a $350,000 one.

“I enjoyed just being out with these guys,” said Woods, who appeared pain-free in his first appearance since having minor surgery on his left knee. Playing a competitive round for the first time since August, Woods—who, along with Day and McIlroy, was seeing Narashino Country Club for the very first time—got off to what he called a “terrible” start before shaking off the rust and playing a solid back nine…except for his final putt of the round, when he had a chance to make birdie, tie Day and send the match into extra holes. He left that 15-footer about a foot short.

“I did not play well at the beginning,” Woods said. “Hit a lot of bad shots and did not putt well. Once I got into the flow of competing and feeling the round, it just got exciting. We were competitive.”

Competitive, sure, but also friendly. All four players were clearly comfortable with each other, with Day especially showing a jovial side you don’t often see from him on tour. Adding to the casual dynamic were the 3,000-or-so fans in attendance who were among the most respectful crowd you’ll encounter anywhere, in any sport. They pulled equally for all four players and showered the three foreigners with the same adoration they bestow upon their native son Matsuyama. This was a crowd appreciative and overjoyed to finally host the world’s best golfers—most of all Woods, who returned to Japan for the first time in 13 years.

In the end, each player won at least one skin. Day, Woods (who finished with five skins and $60,000) and McIlroy (four skins, $60,000) each held at least a share of the lead at one point. The match was still up for grabs as the foursome came to 18, which was worth $100,000. Only Day managed to make birdie.

Alas, none of the four played their best golf all day, particularly early—there was only one birdie in the group through the first five holes, and Woods actually won a skin on 5 with a par. The play did improve from then on, perhaps jump-started by a bit of light-hearted fun on the 7th hole. In a nod to the ongoing Rugby World Cup, which is being hosted by Japan, four rugby greats each paired with a player for a two-man scramble on the par 3. Bryan Habana, whose biceps make a golf club look like a toothpick, gave Matsuyama a read on a 40-foot birdie putt that the pro subsequently drained. Then Brian O’Driscoll jarred a downhill 20-footer to match, much to the delight of his partner McIlroy.

That was the kind of day it was. Loose. Casual. Stress-free. But there were still three losers and one winner, and that winner felt he could take positives as he continues searching for the form that saw him spend 51 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player.

“My short game is starting to come around,” said Day, who has just one top 10 since Augusta, a stretch that’s seen him drop all the way to world No. 27. “My short game was nonexistent last week, but it was nice to be able to hole some putts coming down the stretch, hit some good shots.”

Whether this victory spurs him on to success as the Zozo Champinoship, which begins Thursday at Narashino, remains to be seen. For now, Day will revel in having won his first-ever appearance in a skins game. He was quick to compare that to Woods’ record in these made-for-TV events, which is now 0 for 7, and delivered one last good-natured barb.

“He hasn’t won one yet,” Day said, the one-time major champion looking at the 15-time major champion. “So I’ve got that on him.”