By JIM LITKE, AP Sports Columnist
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Jason Day spoke candidly and emotionally for 40 minutes.
Very little of it was about golf — yet one more reminder that when it comes to athletes’ personal lives, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
The No. 3 player in the world arrived at the Masters this week with the health of his mother, Dening, weighing heavily on his mind. Her battle with lung cancer became public nearly two weeks ago when Day walked off the course just six holes into his opening match at the World Golf Championship. He explained afterward that doctors in his native Australia, where Dening still resides, told her she might have less than a year to live.
But as Day settled in behind a microphone Tuesday at Augusta National, he had nothing but good news to report. He didn’t even wait for the question-and-answer session to begin.
“My mom, she went through a successful surgery on her left lung and she was told by the doctor, don’t have to do chemo, which is really, really exciting stuff,” he began. “Obviously we have to be cautious because the first two to three years are very, very important. …
“I’m very, very pleased and very, very happy with how things have progressed from the start of the year to now,” he added a moment later. “And I feel kind of a lot lighter in a sense, in that my mind is not weighing very much heavily on the situation that my mom was going through. So to be able to have that happen and then be able to come here and get my mind off things is quite nice.”
Day smiled throughout his opening statement. He thanked everyone he could think of for all the well wishes that rolled in the past two weeks: family, friends, peers, fans, sponsors — even the reporters gathered in the interview room.
He knows how fortunate he is and said so more than a half-dozen times, not only because Dening’s prognosis has turned 180 degrees, but also because he has the resources to fly her to the U.S. and arrange for the best medical care available.
“I know that we take it for granted,” he said about his profession. “We’re very, very selfish and we need to be selfish with our time to try and get better at our craft. But sometimes when it comes to family, family has to overcome anything else, obviously golf and other things that you’re worried about.”
Think back 20 years. Athletes speaking frankly about family matters was rare. We made a fuss over Phil Mickelson carrying around a beeper in case he had to bolt the 1999 U.S. Open and fly cross-country if wife Amy went into labor.
“I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mickelson said then. “The U.S. Open is played every year. If that beeper goes off, I’m out of here.”
Not only does the technology of that time seem quaint, but now, because they’re connected to fans via social media and marketing campaigns a thousand times more sophisticated, athletes can choose how and when and even what to share in the public space.
A week after the WGC event where Day withdrew, Gary Woodland explained his own absence on Twitter , revealing he and pregnant wife Gabby “had to cope with the heartbreaking loss” of one of the twins she was carrying.
“We appreciate all of the love and support at this difficult time as we regroup as a family,” he wrote March 29.
Only a month earlier, Woodland had announced his wife’s pregnancy and shared a photo of the ultrasound. The announcement that followed the WGC gave him a chance to reveal some tough news on his own terms. Two decades ago, most fans trying to find out about his absence at the WGC — Woodland, No. 36 in the rankings, is hardly a star on the order of Day — would have searched a website or the agate column in the newspaper and seen nothing more explanatory than “DNP” (did not play) alongside his name.
Instead, like Day, Woodland’s very personal family story unfolded in a context he was comfortable discussing.
In Day’s case, the prospect of a happy ending seemed to generate momentum of its own. The more frankly he spoke about preparing for and playing one of the most important events of his professional life in the wake of the news about his mother, the more reporters drew him out.
“One more question about your mom,” a reporter asked. “A lot of people during Masters week are casual fans who don’t know your whole backstory. Can you describe a little bit about … your mom’s role is in making you a pro golfer?”
“Yeah, this could be a long one,” Day began.
He talked about his father dying from cancer when Day was just 12, how his mother took out a mortgage on their home and borrowed enough money to send him to a golf academy seven hours away, and how a coach he met there named Col Swatton — who remains his caddie to this day — turned him around and taught him to play golf. The story couldn’t have been much sweeter.
“With that said,” Day concluded, “I owe her everything.”
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