ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — As aggressive as Jason Day looks with a golf club in his hand, his success is geared around patience. That’s what carried him to a one-shot victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and put him on the cusp of returning to No. 1 in the world.
Patience works off the golf course, too.
Of the best three players in the world, Day was the only one to shut it down for the final three months of last year. He had another child on the way, but it also was his chance to pace himself for a long year. Even when 2016 rolled around, he played only four times the first 10 weeks.
He didn’t look sharp. He never was in contention.
And he never panicked.
“Once you get that opportunity — when you do get that opportunity — make sure you take that chance,” Day said.
The opportunity arose at Bay Hill, and Day delivered in a big way.
He was one shot behind Kevin Chappell with two holes remaining — two of the three toughest holes on the golf course — when Day hit a 5-iron into the cloudy sky and watched it land softly enough to roll out to 12 feet for a birdie he felt he simply had to make.
The putt looked even better when Chappell, in the group ahead, drove into the right rough on the 18th hole and the ball was buried so badly that Chappell had no choice but to lay up. He wound up missing a 25-foot par putt, and suddenly Day was in the lead.
With his own shot in the rough, Day had a reasonable enough lie to take it over the water and safely into the bunker. At worse, he would get into a playoff. Day was at his best, however, and from nearly 100 feet away, he blasted out of the sand to 4 feet for a par to close with 2-under 70 and beat Chappell by one shot.
He won a trophy, a blue blazer, $1.134 million and one other perk even more valuable — a handshake with the 86-year-old tournament host.
“I was able to walk up there and have a special moment with the King,” Day said. “That’s something I always wanted to do.”
He had seen so many other Bay Hill winners get that privilege, especially his golfing idol, Tiger Woods, who won Bay Hill eight times. Woods has become somewhat of a mentor to Day in recent years, and the two exchanged texts throughout the week.
“Traded texts last night and this morning,” Day said. “It’s the same thing. … ‘Just be yourself and stay in your world.’ And for some reason, it just means so much more. It gives me so much confidence that a person like that would believe in me.”
Day finished at 17-under 271 and moved to No. 2, close enough that he could surpass Jordan Spieth at the Dell Match Play this week.
He became the first wire-to-wire winner at Bay Hill since Fred Couples in 1992.
Day’s victory was heartache for Chappell, playing in his 150th PGA Tour event closer than ever to winning for the first time. Chappell did everything right — two great par saves, a two-putt birdie on the par-5 16th to take the lead — on the back nine until his final tee shot led to bogey and a 69.
“I had a chance to win, and that’s all I can ask for,” Chappell said after his fourth runner-up finish on the PGA Tour, and second this season.
Two others had just as good of a chance.
Troy Merritt and Henrik Stenson also were tied for the lead on the back nine. Stenson fell away first, failing to save par on the 14th and hitting 4-iron into the water on the 16th to make bogey. Merritt had the wild ride. After a double bogey on No. 9 to fall four shots behind, he birdied the next five holes, ending the streak with a 40-foot bunker shot that he holed for birdie on No. 14. And when it looked like he was done, he chipped in for par on the 17th to stay one shot behind.
But his approach to the 18th found the water, and Merritt closed with his third double bogey of the round and shot 71. He tied for third with Stenson, who also shot 71.
Day found great satisfaction in this victory because he wasn’t hitting the ball well and said he never felt comfortable over any shot, until he arrived on the 17th tee. He made bogey on both par 5s on the front nine as his two-shot lead turned into a two-shot deficit.
And he battled back, winning in style. The 28-year-old Australian ended the Florida swing on an ominous note with the Masters only three weeks away. This was the first time in 23 years that major champions — Adam Scott twice, Charl Schwartzel and Day — won the Florida swing events.
If only the Masters could be the next event. Or maybe not.
“No, I don’t wish it started tomorrow,” Day said. “I need some rest.”