Jason Day's baffling 18-shot improvement

— -- PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Before Thursday, the last time Jason Day played a competitive round at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, he shot 81.

Count 'em up: There were three bogeys, two doubles and even an unseemly triple on the scorecard. It was all so ugly that one year later, Day has basically erased that day from his memory.

"I can't really remember too much," he admitted. "I've got a really bad memory, which is kind of a good thing in golf, I guess."

Kind of? Having a bad memory might explain how he's started his week.

One year after he began his second round of the Players Championship just 2 strokes off the pace, only to then post that 81 and miss the cut, Day shot a course-record-tying 9-under 63 on Thursday to claim sole possession of the tournament lead by 2 shots over five golfers.

If you're scoring along at home, that's an 18-stroke improvement from one round to the next, a single year apart.

"To shoot 81 and then 63 is a bit of a -- 18 shots difference is a lot," he acknowledged with a shake of his head.

Of course, the improvement also represents Day's maturation as a player in the past year.

At this point last year, Day was a three-time PGA Tour champion and the world's seventh-ranked golfer, but he was still discussed more in terms of what-coulda-beens and what-still-might-bes than what he'd already accomplished.

Since then, he's won six more times, including his first major championship title, and ascended to No. 1 in the world. It's no wonder he can't remember that 81.

"I feel like I'm a lot more prepared this year than I was last year, especially with how I was playing last year," he said after an opening round that included nine birdies and nine pars. "I was playing pretty decent golf coming into this event, and I'm playing a lot better golf than I was last year."

What often separates the game's highest echelon of players from the next few tiers is that the best of the best can win on any golf course in any given week.

Until this year, TPC Sawgrass never quite suited Day's game. Sure, there was a sixth-place finish four years ago and a share of 19th two years later, but he also failed to make the cut on three occasions, broke 70 in just five of 14 rounds and owned a scoring average of 71.64 that was hardly befitting a superstar.

That's because he wasn't. Not until now, as the Aussie has undergone golf's version of the metamorphosis from fuzzy caterpillar to beautiful butterfly.

He now finds himself in that echelon of players who can win, not just on courses that "suit their games" but on -- that's right -- any course, in any given week.

That's not to say Day's hot start wasn't the result of enhanced preparation, though.

"You have to hit a lot of 3-woods around here, especially if you're a longer hitter," he explained. "I've always said that 3-wood was always kind of that uncomfortable club that I've always had in the bag. I worked very, very hard on hitting a lot of 3-wood tee shots and fairway 3-woods off the ground last week when I was coming into this, just preparing back home in Columbus, because I knew that I was going to hit a lot of them."

Day's progression on this course is not unlike that of Tiger Woods, whom he considers a mentor and often calls for advice. Compared to his track record at most of the tournaments on his usual schedule, Woods has never found much comfort around this track. He won in 2001 and '13, but counts only three other top-10s among his 16 career starts here.

Much of that has to do with this tournament's democratic nature. It routinely ranks as the most unpredictable on the calendar, leveling the playing field so that the upper echelon of players has less of a lock on the top spot.

That could change this week, if Day keeps this up. Rarely does the Players allow for a chalk selection to top the leaderboard, but even this event has no defense against excellence.

After that 81, Day might not have agreed with that statement. One year and 18 fewer strokes later, he could be on the verge of turning it all around.