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Masters 2014: Jason Day on verge of a major breakthrough

Jason Day, Ellie Day, Dash Day
Ben Van Hook/Sports Illustrated
Golf used to be all about the money for Jason Day, but his perspective changed when Ellie and Dash entered the picture.

Jason Day was a truant at age 12, a golf phenom at 19, a bust by 21, and now, at 26, he is finally the next big thing. Thanks to recent victories at the World Cup of Golf and the WGC--Match Play Championship, Day is No. 4 with a bullet in the World Ranking and a popular pick to win the Masters, where last year he held the lead as he stood on the 16th tee on Sunday. His continued growth has validated the true believers who saw something special in him all along: his mom, Dening, a widow who was just scraping by with three kids but somehow found a way to send her only son to a golf academy that changed his trajectory; Colin Swatton, Day's swing coach and caddie over the last 13 years, who has become like a second father; and the former Ellie Harvey, a big-hearted country girl from Lucas, Ohio (pop. 606), who has given Day the stable family life for which he always yearned.

He has reached the top ranks of the game because he has finally learned to absorb the belief others had in him and make it his own. Contrary to the prevailing myth about Tour pros, Day is not all alone between the ropes. He has turned his livelihood into a team sport, leaning not only on the three people above but also on a performance coach, a trainer, a career-long agent and a masseuse, and maybe most of all on a 21-month-old son with a name inspired by the rambunctious kid in The Incredibles: Dash.

"I have a remarkable team around me," says Day. "Every day they inspire me to work toward becoming a better person and a better player. All of us are pushing toward the same goal, which is to get me to No. 1 in the world and to win the green jacket. If I keep doing the things I'm supposed to do, I don't see how I can't reach the goals we've laid out."

Day's surge began with some tough love. At the end of a disappointing 2012 season—one top five finish in 17 starts—he convened what he calls "a team meeting," at which he got an earful from his loved ones and employees. "They told me I had gotten lazy and needed to work a lot harder," he says, laughing as he thinks back on the session. "I'm open to criticism because I know they're here to help. I can't have a bunch of yes-men around me telling me what I want to hear all the time."

Day became obsessed with self-improvement, and around New Year's, he resolved to push himself even harder after reading Lone Survivor, which details the training regimen of the Navy SEALs. After a year of pushing heavy metal in the gym, he is now a buffed 198 pounds; Swatton says the added strength has translated into 10 more yards of carry, but trainer Ben Shear sees another benefit. "He likes having muscles; it's good for him psychologically," says Shear. "He's always been a raw natural athlete—very explosive, very strong. But getting after it in the gym like he does has changed his self-image a little bit."

In a quest to reduce his body fat to 10%, Day radically altered his diet, regularly going on weeklong fasts in which he eats almost nothing but chicken breasts and broccoli, though if he's feeling frisky he might throw in a few green beans. Having already given up his beloved soda at the start of the year, he is now trying to eliminate sugar entirely. After winning the Match Play, he celebrated in the most outrageous way he could imagine: a slice of room-service chocolate cake. (The champagne bottle the hotel sent his way remains unpopped; Day allows himself alcohol only once or twice a year.) The Match Play was his second PGA Tour victory, four long years since his breakthrough at the 2010 Byron Nelson. After surviving Victor Dubuisson's short-game magic in the epic 23-hole final, Day was in bed by 9:30 that night, but he hardly slept a wink, and it wasn't because of a sugar high from the cake. "All I could think about was what I needed to do to get better," he says.

In the ensuing two weeks he hit thousands of balls, leading to an inflamed left thumb that forced him to withdraw from Doral and Bay Hill. This is not the ideal preparation for Augusta, but Day seems unconcerned. At the 2011 Masters he arrived a week before the tournament and developed a detailed routine of practice rounds, short-game work and time on the range. He tied for second, followed the same schedule last year and will do so again next week. (In 2012 he withdrew after the first round with a foot injury.)

Day is peaceful about not getting as many tournament reps, because in the last 14 months he has learned that golf's secrets are not only in the dirt but also in the fertile land of the mind. A macho ethos he ascribes to his homeland discouraged him from working with sports psychologists earlier in his career even though Day was a little fragile mentally; in 2009 he froze over his approach shot on the 9th hole at Pebble Beach, unable to take his 6-iron back for some 30 seconds. "All I could imagine were the worst possible outcomes," he says.

Last year at Pebble he began working with Jason Goldsmith, a performance coach who is a copartner at FocusBand, which developed a halolike device that Day wears on his head during practice rounds and on the range. The FocusBand measures brain activity and cognitive function. "The reason why golf is so difficult is because you're starting the action—everything is still, so your intellect wants to be involved," says Goldsmith. "Your mind wants to be in control, but the golf swing has to be done on a subconscious level. It's impossible to think about the thousands of muscles and tendons and ligaments that have to fire in a perfect sequence in a fraction of a second. Yet even the best players in the world get stuck in a pattern of trying to consciously make the perfect swing. It doesn't work."

After all the data analysis, Day and Goldsmith devised a 15-step preshot routine, which is written on a nine-foot vinyl scroll that Goldsmith carries around and can unfurl for reference. (He says Day can go through the process in nine seconds or less.) As he is walking toward his ball, Day does mental exercises focused on his breathing, posture and what Goldsmith calls "mind-body awareness." The goal is to reach a state of mushin, a Japanese word that means "mind of no-mindedness." As Day sizes up the shot at hand, his only thought is to create in his mind a detailed picture of what the perfect outcome will look like. Then he trusts his body to make it come to life. Day's uncluttered focus has impressed his peers. Asked to name the best part of Day's game, Rickie Fowler says, "He never seems like he hits a shot before he's ready—not that he's a slow player. Mentally, he does a good job of being sure he's committed."

Day and Goldsmith believe the journey into the mind is far from complete. "When the result matches the picture, you can see the jubilation on his face," says Goldsmith. "In our early days he would do it maybe five times a round. Now he's doing it 30 to 40 times. Just the other day Jason said to me, 'Can you imagine the day when I can do that on every single shot? Nobody in the world will be able to play golf with me.'"

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