Jason Day's title defense sidetracked

SAN DIEGO -- Taken by itself, the par-5 18th hole at Torrey Pines' South course on Friday afternoon summed up the beautiful run of golf Jason Day put together late in 2015 to briefly attain the No. 1 ranking and stamp himself a force among a slew of young contenders in the game.

He striped a drive 321 yards into the fairway, from where he knocked his second shot from 242 yards onto the green, setting up a 30-foot eagle putt. He missed but settled for an easy birdie, showing the kind of power that can at times allow the Australian to dominate.

The problem, of course, was that was Day's only birdie of the day. He shot 74 after opening the tournament with a 72 on the easier North course. His title defense at the Farmers Insurance Open was over before it really had a chance to begin.

"It's really more frustrating, knowing that I put a lot of good prep coming into this week, and then I got sick [last] Friday night and haven't picked up a club until Thursday,'' he said. "That was the frustrating part, because you can't really come into this tournament prepared the way I wanted to, especially when I'm defending champion.

"Getting through the days were just annoying. You have to come out and try and focus, and you just don't quite feel right, and you're not hitting the numbers you want to because you're a little under the weather.''

Day wasn't making excuses, but the flu is not fun and his entire family had it over the past several days, leading to a hospital visit as well. There was difficulty getting out of bed, let alone playing golf, and it was clear Day was out of sorts. He made only five birdies in two days and was probably fortunate to perform at all.

This is not exactly what Day had planned coming off a banner year that saw him win five times, including a seven-week stretch last summer that included four victories in seven tournaments.

Before Friday, Day had finished in the top 12 in his previous 10 PGA Tour events, including the Hyundai Tournament of Champions earlier this month. But that is a small-field event and Day was never really in contention.

After the Tour Championship in September, Day, 28, had a lackluster performance at the Presidents Cup, chalked up to exhaustion after an incredible end to the season. He then took the rest of the year off as his wife, Ellie, had the couple's second child. Day got more attention for being on the sideline of a Detroit Lions football game and when Ellie got run over by LeBron James when the couple was sitting courtside at a Cleveland Cavaliers game.

Then came the illness that led to his first missed cut since the Memorial Tournament last June. Instead of gaining ground on No. 1 Jordan Spieth, who is playing this week at the Singapore Open, Day probably will slip behind Rory McIlroy into the No. 3 position.

"It's just one week,'' he said. "You can't live and die by one week. It's not going to be the last cut I'm going to miss. Hopefully it is the last cut I'm going to miss this year.''

If it is any consolation, Day will be joined on the sideline by No. 4 Rickie Fowler and No. 7 Justin Rose, two of the tournament's headliners who won't be playing this weekend.

Missed cuts are part of the game, but losing so many big names does give you an appreciation for two of the game's other stars, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. When they both missed the cut at last year's Waste Management Phoenix Open, it was only the second time in 218 PGA Tour events together that they both went home after 36 holes.

Mickelson, who was in contention early in the second round and playing the easier North course, inexplicably fell apart, bogeying his last three holes to miss the cut at Torrey Pines for the second straight year.

"That's not fun,'' Mickelson said. "Bogeys from the fairway with some wedges, just some dumb things. I really don't have a great explanation.''

Rose was making his first start of 2016 and playing for the first time since the Hero World Challenge in early December. He shot even-par 144 for two rounds, certainly not terrible, but a lack of competition could have contributed to his having the weekend off.

That wasn't the case for Fowler, who came into the week off the high of winning on Sunday at the European Tour event in Abu Dhabi. That victory boosted him to his highest-ever world ranking of fourth.

"I didn't get really anything out of my game the last two days the way I played,'' Fowler said. "Just didn't score very well. I made a few birdies, but definitely need to make more. Should have made more yesterday on the North course. Today I had some good opportunities, just seemed like the ball was a bit scared of the hole."

None among that elite foursome of golfers seems particularly perturbed. Day was ill, Fowler probably was on fumes after the long trip from Abu Dhabi, Rose was rusty and Mickelson admitted he might have pressed when the lower numbers didn't materialize.

That's golf, and it serves as a reminder that the game has a way of humbling even the best.