ERIN, WISCONSIN – When it was over and there was nothing left to do but grab some lunch and turn the RV toward home, Jason Day stopped for a moment to explain himself before leaving Erin Hills two days earlier than planned.
The man introducing Day to the gathered media said, “Jason Day on the podium. He had 79 yesterday, 75 today.”
Day cut his eyes toward the man, smiled ever so slightly and said, “Thanks for that.”
A few feet away, Rory McIlroy stared into another bank of cameras and questions, trying to explain why he was out after 36 careening holes. He and Day had been grouped together along with Justin Rose for two inglorious days.
“It’s a missed cut, my annual missed cut,” McIlroy said after missing the U.S. Open weekend for the third time since he won this championship six years ago at Congressional.
So goes this U.S. Open, which so far has given us two entertaining days on a new site that looks old but fits the modern, mash-it game even if some traditionalists are missing the single-file fairways and Sherwood Forest trees more typically seen at this championship.
Erin Hills didn’t give Day and McIlroy the weekend off. They earned it themselves the old-fashioned way – by driving it off line on fairways as wide as the sky and by failing to handle the detail work of chipping and putting the way they more typically do.
“The golf course is great,” McIlroy said after posting 78-71. “It really is. I’m a big fan of this place.”
“I usually love places like this,” Day said. “I enjoyed the walk. The golf course is actually really beautiful and I just unfortunately didn’t execute.”
Is this cause for alarm in one or both cases?
Not necessarily but it furthers the dual narrative in which neither player’s season seems to have ever fully started. Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Sergio García have had their moments this year.
Day and McIlroy have kept everyone waiting.
Let’s start with Day, who missed a major-championship cut for the first time since the 2012 PGA Championship. He has just two top-10 finishes this year, one of which was a playoff loss to Billy Horschel at the AT&T Byron Nelson last month.
He has dealt with the soul-shaking health scare involving his mother and, while that concern has been alleviated, Day’s struggles can be found in his ballstriking stats. He ranks 145th in driving accuracy, 113th in greens hit and 202nd in approaches from 125 to 150 yards. That’s more than enough numbers to make the point that he’s not been sharp.
And yet …
“It’s been the best preparation going into a major, I felt like, in my career,” Day said.
He birdied the first hole Thursday, giving him the green light to be aggressive on a course that encourages and rewards power, which Day has in abundance. But when you have a field in which to drive the ball, sometimes the target can be too big.
“I hit it in the hay too much,” Day said, mentioning the two triple bogeys he made on Thursday and his failure to save par on any of the six greens he missed in the first round.
As for McIlroy, he’s stutter-stepped his way through this season due to a nagging rib injury that cost him time early this year then flared up again at the Players Championship, shutting him down again.
He came to Erin Hills in time to play 54 holes and feel comfortable with its wide corridors and relatively flat greens. This looked and felt like a place where McIlroy might find again what’s gone missing.
If you believe in such things, then perhaps McIlroy tempted fate when he complained about the USGA trimming back some of the deepest fescue prior to the start of the championship. In the first round, no player hit fewer fairways than McIlroy.
Karma can be a, well, you know.
“Everything was in good shape but you never really know until you put a card in your hand and you’re under the gun a little bit,” McIlroy said.
He found himself lunging at the ball in the first round, an issue he rectified Friday though it was too late. McIlroy did close with four birdies in his last six holes, a going-away present he can take to the Travelers Championship next week.
Day is scheduled to play there, too.
Until then, Day said, “I’ll get to sit in the air-conditioning and watch the guys tear (Erin Hills) up on the weekend.”