Mama told Jason there’d be Days like this

When you have a surname like Day, you can be king for a day, a hero for a day, but when you’re Jason after winning a major golf tournament, you have just had your Greatest Day.
This is a rags to riches story, a sporting fairy tale that comes along once or twice in a generation, and is tinged with sadness.
Jason Day is a 27-year-old Australian, who grew up poor in Beaudesert, Queensland, so poor, in fact, he told The Australian’s Brent Read and other reporters: “My mum, I mean, I remember watching her cut the lawn with a knife because we couldn’t afford to fix the lawnmower. I remember not having a hot water tank, so we had to use a kettle for hot showers.”
His father, Alvyn, always believed his son would become a champion golfer. He brought home an abandoned three-wood club from the local rubbish tip, cut it down to size, and let his son whack tennis balls across the backyard. Unfortunately, his father wasn’t there to watch his son score his first major victory – the US PGA — at Whistling Straits, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Alvyn died of stomach cancer when Jason was only 12 years old, and asked his son to spread his ashes on Augusta National when he played in the US Masters. The club said Jason will have to wait until he’s number one, but that shouldn’t be long.
The story gets more poignant now. When Jason’s father died, he took up drinking and fighting, and had no future. But this time his mother, Dening, stepped in to make her husband’s dream come true (Photo above of her with Jason holding the trophy Photo: Mike Calleja). She took a second mortgage on the family farm, raising enough money to send Jason to boarding school at Kooralbyn in the Gold Coast, where he met his first coach, and now caddie, Col Swatton. Jason told the fairy-tale ending to Will Swanton of The Australian: “That was for my mum to sacrifice and my sisters to sacrifice for me, so I could get away to a golf academy and work hard and meet Col and work hard on my game. To be able to have Colin on the bag at my first major championship win, walking up 18 knowing that I’ve got the trophy, it was hard. I was trying to hold back tears over the first putt and then when I saw the putt go up to half a foot. I just couldn’t stop crying.” Swanton adds: “Not for the first time in the past 15 years, it was Swatton who provided a shoulder to cry on.”
Jason Day was crying for the loss of his father, for the sacrifices of his family, for the deaths of eight relatives in Typhoon Hainan, in the Phiippines in 2013, and for his near misses on the golf course, including a bout of vertigo at the US Open, before his weekend win with a 20-under-par total – the lowest majors’ score in golf history — and beating number one Jordan Spieth, to boot.
Jason’s famous victory reminded me of some hometown heroes whose rags to riches stories never fail to inspire. My good friend, Jim Morgan, who grew up in Philadelphia, motivated me to write this piece with this email: “Seamus (Jim’s son) and I have liked Jason Day since we first saw him on TV. I wasn’t sure why but it was probably the way he behaved on the course — serious business but not too serious to smile once in a while — and seemingly always positive. Now he has a major golf championship under his belt with a record-setting score that beats Tiger. Good for Jason and good for Aussie sportsmanship.”
After the final round, Jason (pictured below with his son Dash after his victory. AFP Photo) had this to say about his triumph: “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 a positive. Knowing that you can learn from anything, even if it’s bad or good. And that really gets you mentally tough. If I didn’t have that failure, I wouldn’t be standing here today with this trophy.”
Speaking of toughness brings me back to my three Philly heroes: Chuck Bednarik, Herb Magee and Tom Gola. All had rags to riches tales. Chuck Bednarik, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles, grew up in the tough industrial town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His father, like so many Eastern Europeans who came to Pennsylvania, found work in a steel mill. Frank Fitzpatrick wrote Bednarik’s obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year when he died, aged 89: “The sons of these tough men grew up equally tough. Big, strong, and feisty to a fault, Bednarik found football to be an outlet for the fires that burned red-hot within.” Chuck Bednarik played offence and defence for the Eagles, and made the last tackle of the NFL championship in December, 1960 to beat the Green Bay Packers, making sure fullback Jim Taylor stayed on the ground: “You can get up now,” Bednarik told Taylor when time expired, “the . . . game’s over.” In the previous month, Bednarik tackled New York Giants’ star Frank Gifford, and knocked him unconscious. In a famous photograph, Bednarik appeared to be gloating over Gifford, who was an NFL star: “I wasn’t gloating over him. I had no idea he was there. It was the most important play and tackle in my life. They were from the big city. The glamour boys. The guys who got written up in all the magazines. But I thought we were the better team.”
Another Philly legend, Tom Gola, was one of the best basketball players in the city’s rich hoops history. He grew up in a row house in Olney in North Philadelphia, just around the corner from the Incarnation of Our Lord parish gym, where he learned the game that would make him a local hero. Philadelphia was the most Catholic of cities in those days, and you didn’t come from a neighbourhood, but a parish. Tom Gola’s Polish father was a Philly policeman, and his son went to LaSalle High, where his team won the city championship, to LaSalle College, where they won the national championship in 1954, and in his first year with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956, they won the National Basketball Association championship. He led a seemingly charmed life, enabled by hard work, and went on to become a Hall of Fame basketballer, and a successful politician and businessman. Fitzpatrick and Joe Juliano summed up Tom Gola in the Inquirer obituary, written in January 2014 at his death, aged 81: “UCLA coach John Wooden once called him the ‘greatest all-around basketball player’ he had ever seen. His hometown newspapers daily dissected his life and career in minute detail. Readers learned that the high-cheekboned accounting major, nicknamed ‘Ostrich’ by teammates, loved comic books, Stan Kenton’s band, and playing the harmonica. He seemed too good to be true. ‘There is,’ the Rev Joseph Belz (who first introduced Gola to basketball in the fifth grade) said in the mid-’50s, ‘a touch of unreality about him’.”
The final member of my Philly trio I happen to know better than the other two. Herb Magee is only one of four basketball coaches in the United States to have achieved more than a thousand victories in his career. He turned 74 in June and is now approaching his 49th year as head coach of Philadelphia University. He grew up in West Philadelphia, went to grade school at St Francis de Sales and was the star guard at West Catholic High School, alongside Jimmy Lynam and the late Jimmy Boyle, two more basketball legends. I knew his brother Ray, who died a few years ago, from our days at de Sales and West Catholic. Herb Magee grew up in a brick, porchfront row house at 45th and Baltimore Avenue in white middle-class, 1950s West Philly. Will Green profiled Magee in Sports Illustrated Magazine after his 1000th win: “When he was 12 his mother died of kidney disease and his father passed away after having a stroke. He and his three orphaned brothers were then raised by his uncle Edwin Gallagher, the chaplain of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Magee played basketball at West Catholic High School, where he developed a reputation as a prolific long-range shooter long before the days of the three-point line. He was known on the playgrounds as ‘The Flying Squirrel’ for his 5’10” stature and his running and jumping ability. Magee taught himself how to shoot by watching the mechanics of Hall Of Famers Paul Arizin, Tom Gola and Wilt Chamberlain, whom he saw when he hopped the fence in to Philadelphia Warriors games at Convention Hall with his friends.” Actually, what we did was knock on a side door, and hand a 50 cent piece to an usher as we ran in. In those days, the Hall was never full, and the ushers didn’t get paid much.
Herb Magee went on to become the leading scorer at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University), before the three point line was introduced, and then assistant coach in 1963 and head coach in 1967. He has been at the same school ever since. He led Textile to an NCAA Division Two championship in 1970 and received a congratulatory telegram from President Richard Nixon. Those will be the only nice words I can ever say about Nixon. Herb Magee was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2011, and continues to pile up wins and trophies. Just before his 1000th win, Magee told Philadelphia Daily News Reporter Mike Kern: “Makes no difference if it’s 1,001, 1,002 or whatever. I know that sounds phony or something like that, but that’s the way I live. It’s never about how many wins you get. It’s how your team’s doing at the time. You don’t get that many wins if you’re concentrating on how many wins you have.”
You can see what Jason Day has in common with Bednarik, Gola and Magee. They all overcame the odds and performed to the best of their ability. And they never forgot where they came from. Jason Day certainly hasn’t. His American wife, Ellie, is due to give birth to their second child in mid-November, and he was hoping to bring the PGA trophy back to Australia this summer. But he told Brent Read that will have to wait: “I was excited to bring it back. Very rare moments like this happen for us. We don’t get this very often. To be able to bring it back to the fans, the fans of golf and have the Australian people cherish the moment and experience what I went throught – it’s sad because I really wanted them to do that. Unfortunately I can’t. I would probably be in the doghouse if I left and my wife was here raising two kids by herself. The trophy I have here now is mine and I am going to bring it down to Australia one day.”
We can wait, Jason, we can wait.

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