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Monetary irony in play for Jason Day

NORTON, Mass. -- We expect certain things from our sports heroes we would never demand from others. We expect them to love their jobs unconditionally because we could only dream of living their lives. We expect them to never take it for granted because we think we wouldn't in the same situation.

And perhaps more than anything, we expect them to compete for the love of the game, for the thrill of victory, for trophies and accolades and adulation. We expect them to try their hardest for the innocent goal of becoming the best in the world.

These are unfair expectations.

Just as the 9-to-5 office worker plies his craft in a bland cubicle or the third-shifter toils under the cover of darkness less for passion than paycheck, our sports heroes can also be motivated by the almighty dollar. They can follow their career paths to pay the bills or increase social status or buy fancy things.

For the early part of his career, Jason Day felt exactly this way.

Growing up poor in Queensland, Australia, Day dreamed of someday having money in his pocket. His family wasn't just poor; they lived in poverty. He remembers his mother trimming the lawn with scissors when the lawnmower broke because they couldn't afford to get it fixed. He remembers heating a kettle of water for showers because they didn't have a working hot water tank.

He remembered all of these issues, these obstacles, when he finally became a PGA Tour member. The kid just a few years removed from poverty was now playing for millions of dollars -- and he couldn't stop thinking about it.

"When I turned pro, I had zero dollars to my name," he explained. "So it comes naturally to someone that had no money to focus on the money."

Day said these words Friday afternoon at the Deutsche Bank Championship, on the heels of an opening-round 3-under 68 that put him tied for 11th during a season that has already seen him accrue more than $7.5 million in on-course earnings. He's playing for a top prize of $1.485 million this week and is already in the lead position for the $10 million bonus which is bestowed upon the eventual FedEx Cup champion.

It would only be natural -- logical, even -- if Day's eyes were lighting up with dollar signs at the possibility of cashing in during golf's ultimate cash cow.

Here's where the story takes a sharp right turn, though.

The player who spent so many years as a pro thinking about the monetary value of moving up the leaderboard has stopped focusing on such tangible rewards. He's now more concerned with abstract concepts such as the process of improvement and visualizing success.

He has become everything we expect from our sports heroes, unfairly or not.

"You focus on it too much, you just shoot yourself in the foot," he explained from experience. "Now I'm not thinking about money. I'm thinking about winning."

There's probably a valuable lesson in this sentiment, valuable enough to account for Day's burgeoning bank account total. How else to explain the parallels between refocusing his energies and finding greater successes on the course? In his first 151 career events, he won just twice. In his 17 tournaments this season, he has tripled his career victory total.

Consider it his own personal Catch-22: When he cared more about earning money, he couldn't earn the money. Now that he cares less about earning it, the $25-million man is raking it in.

"It's like a double-edged sword," he said. "All the money comes after. If you win, the money comes after. And it's amazing: The more you win, the more money comes after."

He offered that analysis with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but for someone who grew up in poverty, it remains an important reminder.

Just as Day himself remains an important reminder. Certainly, there are PGA Tour pros, other athletes and, well, career-minded individuals in all walks of life who are working for the paycheck. There's nothing wrong with that. For some, it can provide the perfect motivation. For others, like Day, it can serve as a roadblock to success.

He has proven he couldn't reach the next level of his game before he stopped worrying about the money.

"I think gradually over time I've learned to kind of not focus on money as much," he said. "Because I know if I ever fall and break my arm, it's OK. Money isn't true happiness, but it makes life a lot easier. It's something that I focused a little too much on and now just as I gradually played more golf, I've learned to not focus on it so much. It's more exciting to win golf tournaments rather than the money. It's great to have it, but ..."

His voice trails off. There was a time -- not so long ago, really -- when Day was too worried about money to unburden himself inside the ropes. That time has passed. He's now more concerned with his game, with the thrill of victory, with the trophies and accolades and adulation than what monetary benefits he might reap from it.

It's exactly what we expect from our sports heroes.