Day back in the mix at a major

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jason Day scrambled in the near darkness Friday evening, figuring a few rushed shots in the gloaming would be better than having to return to Quail Hollow in the dawn patrol hours on Saturday.

The scene showed that players can get moving when need be, and Day — often accused of being a dawdler — put it in hustle mode to get to the clubhouse.

Undoubtedly there was some excitement, too, as Day saw himself near the top of the leaderboard for one of the rare times this year.

A 4-under-par 66 pushed him into contention and to within 2 strokes of leaders Hideki Matsuyama and Kevin Kisner.

Day, 29, the 2015 PGA Championship winner, has dropped to seventh in the world after starting the year No. 1.

A series of issues have befallen the Australian, who has not won since his victory at the 2016 Players Championship. His only real shot at victory this year came when he lost a playoff to Billy Horschel at the Byron Nelson Championship.

“It annoys and motivates me at the same time, to be honest, because I know how good I can be, because I have got to No. 1 in the world,” Day said.

And given his plight this year — three missed cuts and only two top 10s — after finishing up 2016 by withdrawing twice because of back problems, Day didn’t figure to be getting in the mix here this week.

Before the tournament, he talked about some of the mistakes he made after getting to No. 1.

“I think through the latter part of last year, I got a little bit burnt out,” said Day, who after winning five times including his first major in 2015, won three times in an eight-week span last year. “I was trying to do too many things, and my mind got a little bit away from what really made me good to get to No. 1 and how much I practiced. I just solely focused on playing golf.

“Then you add being No. 1 in the world and then there’s a lot more time taken away from you. So with that being said, I think I would definitely handle it differently once I get back there. Right now, it is frustrating to me because I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘My game is not where it should be. I’m not doing the right things on the course.’ I really haven’t had the greatest year. You’re not panicking or anything, you’re just wondering why.

“You’re up at night thinking about, OK, what do I need to do to get back to that winning form? I think once I minimize the distractions that I’ve had in my life and can focus more on just playing golf and focus, and single focus on golf, then everything will take care of itself.”

Well, something clicked. After opening the tournament with a 1-under-par 70 on Thursday, then bogeying the third hole Friday, Day got going with an eagle at the par-5 seventh, where he knocked his approach from 185 yards to 2 feet.

He followed with birdies at the eighth, ninth and 10th before a weather delay, then bogeyed the 11th after returning. He settled down to birdie the 13th and 14th holes to pull to within 2 shots of the lead, then played the difficult stretch known as “The Green Mile” — the 16th, 17th and 18th holes — in even par, sprinting to the 18th tee to beat the horn that sounded to halt play for the day due to darkness.

Under the rules, a player is allowed to complete the hole he is on as long as one player in the group has teed off.

“It was really dark out there,” he said. “… To be honest, we were kind of slow the whole day and we played really fast the last two holes.

“Thinking about it, if I went bogey, bogey, I’d be very devastated right now sitting here. But at the end of the day, I finished strong with two pars. Just missed a birdie on 18. So very pleased with how I played today.”

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