'It feels like a lifetime': Jason Day, former No. 1, winless since 2018, opens RMC with a 67

Tony Paul Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Detroit — How long's it been since Jason Day won on the PGA Tour? Let's put it this way: LeBron James still was playing for Day's favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"Oh yeah," said Day, "it feels like a lifetime."

Day, a former No. 1-ranked player in the world who's now ranked 66th amid struggles brought on largely by chronic back issues, shot a 5-under 67 to put himself among the early leaders midway through Round 1 of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club on Thursday.


Jason Day opened with a 67 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic on Thursday.

Day is coming off a tie for 10th at the Travelers Championship last week in Connecticut, where he entered the final round in contention to win for the first time since the Wells Fargo Championship in May 2018.

It was June 2018 that James left Day's Cavaliers — he lives in Ohio and he's a longtime season ticket-holder to Dan Gilbert's NBA team — and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Travelers showing was his third-best of the season; he's had two ties for seventh.

He missed the cut last year at Detroit, his first appearance at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He figured things out Thursday, particularly on the treacherous Donald Ross greens. He made two putts of longer than 35 feet and another 20-footer for birdie; on the day, he made putts totaling 120 feet, 5 inches.

Day came into the week ranked 103rd on the season in shots gained putting.

"I feel like my putting has definitely eased a lot of the pressure," Day said of a round that featured seven birdies and two bogeys. "At the start of the year, I thought I had no idea what I was doing putting-wise.

"Putting was, like I said before, the sun in my universe, and I've just got to keep working on it."

More: Defending RMC champ Bryson DeChambeau, caddie break up before opening round

When Day was really rolling, particularly in 2015-16 when he won a combined eight times including the 2015 PGA Championship, he was making tons of putts. In 2015, he was sixth in shots gained putting, and in 2016, he was the best in the world at that stat.

From 2015-18, he had 15 top-three finishes; he hasn't had one in the last three seasons.

Much of that can be attributed to health. The Australia native has dealt with multiple ailments over the years, including vertigo, which forced him to collapse at the 2015 U.S. Open.

It's been the back that's been the big problem, though — so much so that when a fan asked him to put the championship belt around his waist after winning the AREA 3-1-3 celebrity challenge at DGC on Tuesday, Day politely declined, citing the bad back.

He was walking very slowly at last week's Travelers, and looked in pain getting the ball out of the hole.

He was walking gingerly again Thursday morning, though that might have been out of caution, given the very wet grounds after DGC was pummeled by rain for several days. Day said the back is mostly fine, other than when he has to bend down.

Day trailed opening-round leader Davis Thompson by four strokes, and was joined at 5 under by several early finishers, including 2020 runner-up Matthew Wolff, 2020 third-place finisher Kevin Kisner and 2017 Players Championship winner Si Woo Kim.

"I'm not done yet," said Day, whose highlight of the day, outside of putting, might've been the tee shot he hit to 2 feet, 5 inches at the short par-3 15th. "I know that I've just got to keep pushing."

Pontzer honored

Brian Stuard didn’t know Timothy Pontzer, but the PGA Tour pro from Jackson and Oakland University knew what Pontzer meant to many in the local golf community.

“I didn’t know him personally,” Stuard said after completing his first round. “I just knew he meant a lot to a few guys who I’ve become close with at Metro Detroit (Golfers).”

Pontzer was a former sportswriter and talk-radio producer who was working with Brand25Media, a marketing firm started by former 97.1 The Ticket personalities Mike Sullivan and Kyle Bogenshutz, who also co-founded the MDG online community Pontzer was heavily involved with. Ponter, a 27-year-old from Auburn Hills, died late last week in an accident on southbound Interstate-75.

Pontzer, like Stuard, was an Oakland alum.

Stuard, who shot 1-under 71 on Thursday, dedicated his opening tee shot to Pontzer and will wear his initials on his hat throughout the tournament. The hat read "TP7," the No. 7 being Pontzer's high-school number, and the number of one of his favorite athletes, Ben Roethlisberger.

“I just thought it would be a nice thing to do,” said Stuard, “and just kind of honor his memory.”

O'Neal gets sponsorship

Timothy O’Neal, a 48-year-old journeyman golfer, won more than the inaugural John Shippen to earn a spot in this week’s field.

He also entered into a sponsorship agreement with the tournament’s title sponsor, Rocket Mortgage, before teeing it up in the opening round Thursday night following a long rain delay. Neither the financial terms, nor the length of the deal, were announced, but the sponsorship clearly is a boost for the Georgia native, who hasn’t had a corporate deal in years.

He was sponsored by actor Will Smith for two years early in his pro career. He’s played in seven PGA Tour tournaments, and has never made the cut.

“Tim O’Neal is a great inspiration and a testament to how hard work and years of dedication can pay off tremendously,” Casey Hurbis, chief marketing officer for Rock Central, the marketing wing of Rocket Mortgage, said in a statement to The News. “Having him join the Rocket Mortgage team after winning The John Shippen National Invitational is an honor and a privilege, especially as we continue to explore impactful ways to improve the amount of diversity, equity and inclusion in golf.

"We look forward to cheering him on as he takes on the Rocket Mortgage Classic.”

The Shippen, named after the nation’s first Black golf professional, was created to showcase the top Black pros and amateurs, men and women, who don't already have PGA or LPGA Tour status. The tournament, held Sunday and Monday at DGC, awarded an exemption into the Rocket Mortgage Classic, as well as three exemptions into future LPGA Tour events, including this month’s Great Lakes Bay Invitational in Midland.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984


Twitter: @mattcharboneau