For Jason Day, an eagle, six birdies and balloons

© Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It was Jason Day’s darkest hour. He was in pain. He was in doubt. Nothing is more important to any athlete in any sport than his body.

Day’s was failing him.

A back problem, not unusual for a golfer, but a severe one that didn’t permit much optimism.

”I think I’m nearly done here,” he confided several months ago to his wife, because of how much pain he was in.

Physically and emotionally.

“And then on top of it,” said Day, “how stressful it is to play competitive golf week in and week out and try to live up to the expectations not only with yourself but with what everyone else thinks that you should be doing.”

Yet golf is what he does, and Friday, under the circumstances, restricted in practice, limited in attack, he did it beautifully, shooting a bogey-free 8-under-par 64 at that most picturesque and historical of courses, century-old Pebble Beach.

Six birdies and, at the monster 573-yard par-5, an eagle 3 to climb out of the doldrums as much as back into contention after two rounds of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Day is at 131 for 36 holes. On Thursday he had a 67 at Monterey Peninsula, where par is 71 as compared to 72 at Pebble and Spyglass Hill, all three courses in play the first three days.

Canadian Nick Taylor leads at 129 after a 66 at Pebble, and at 132 is a name few thought would be there, the defending champ and five-time AT&T winner, 49-year-old Phil Mickelson. He shot 64, 7-under, at Monterey Peninsula. “I’m hopeful it will continue,” said Phil.

As is Day. The Australian has been No. 1 in the world rankings and won a PGA Championship and The Players. At 32, he should be entering his golfing prime. But there’s the back.

“It’s been a long time since I felt like I felt out there today and played like that,” he said. “You’re very thankful because it’s so hard. Because you expect so much of yourself. Sometimes when you’re injured, as I was last year ... you feel like your world is crumbling around yourself. It’s not a good feeling. There are some dark moments.”

Even the brighter ones come with a burden. There is daily therapy.

“I’m trying to be as disciplined as I can to extend my career,” said Day. “I actually really enjoy this game. I love this game. It’s given me so much.”

And taken a great deal. The golf swing is an unnatural motion, start, stop, lurch, pound. Even putting strains the back. Look at the golfers who had back problems of one type or another: Arnie, Jack, Johnny Miller, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tom Kite.

Day’s therapy work includes blowing up balloons. The intent is to expand the muscles around the rib cage, relieving pressure on the back.

“Mind you, you feel self-conscious, because you’re in the gym blowing up balloons, and no one else is. I’m not a doctor, but this is kind of how we worked it out. My trainer, Kevin Duffy, worked it out. It’s called PRI.

“You throw out your rib cage and your pelvic floor — this is funny. I’m trying to hold a certain position and get my rib cage back into position, but blowing up a balloon, it pressurizes everything. A lot of golfers have problems because they get too tight in the thoracic area and get tight hips.

“If you don’t hold that breath and exhale out, it’s like you’re suffocating. You learn to hold it.”

For Day, it’s not a matter of working but of not working.

“Because sometimes when you’re going through a tough trot like I’ve been going through,” he said, “sometimes working hard is not the solution. Sometimes just relaxing and getting out your own way — make your world take a step back and just kind of enjoy yourself.”

And for an aching golfer — or any golfer — what could be more enjoyable than six birdies and an eagle? To your health, Jason.