Masters 2014: Jason Day on verge of a major breakthrough

Jason Day and Colin Swatton
Darren Carroll/Getty Images
Only 22, Day (with Colin Swatton) broke through at the 2010 Nelson, but then he went almost four years without a victory.

Day's father, Alvin, was a native of Australia, while Dening hails from the Philippines. She describes herself as a "mail bride"—she had a long correspondence with Alvin but did not meet him until he flew to the Philippines for the wedding. Jason was born in Beaudesert, on Australia's Gold Coast. "There was a big difference between the haves and the have-nots," Dening says of the town. "We were on the bottom of the have-nots." Jason's parents worked at a nearby port, Dening as a clerk and her husband manning the scales.

Alvin was an accomplished tennis player, but when his son was six, he decided that Jason should pursue golf. In fact, he insisted on it. "Jason loved to play cricket, he was a natural at the long jump and other track events, but he wasn't allowed to do anything," says Dening. "Whether he liked it or not, he had to embrace golf. [Alvin] was old school, a very strict parent. Everyone toed the line."

Jason still remembers his first set of clubs: "A 9-, 7-, 6- and 4-iron, all different brands, and each felt totally different. The shafts were rusted out, I remember that. I had a 1½-wood, and the spindling—the wire stuff at the bottom—it was coming off. I had a 3-wood made of some kind of weird composite material. It looked like plastic. The clubs barely fit in this tiny little leather pencil bag. Those clubs were so crappy, but I loved them." When Jason was 10 his father took him to a pawn shop and scored for him a sweet set of Power Built Odyssey 2000s in a bright-orange leather bag. "That was the best day ever," Jason says.

With an enviable natural talent and the fundamentals endowed by his father, Jason was good enough to win a number of local tournaments. But he was 12 when his father died of stomach cancer, and Jason's memories are complicated. "I've blocked out a lot of stuff," he says. "A lot of things were great about him, and a lot of things were kind of terrible. At one point he was an alcoholic. He used to smoke a lot, and he would come home drunk. Those are things as a kid you don't want to see."

Alvin's death fractured the family. Jason's sister Kim ran away from home and lived on the streets for more than a year. Jason got into fights at school almost every day, and alcohol became his escape. "He was a lost soul," Dening says. She believed that golf was his only road to salvation, so she sold the family's house to pull together enough money to send Jason to play for (and board at) Kooralbyn International School, a seven-hour drive from home. Swatton was coaching there, and the two got off to a rocky start. On their first afternoon together Swatton instructed Day to work on his short game. "I told him to f--- off," recalls Day. "I was still a punk. I wanted to play the par-3 course, so there we were, both cussing at each other." Day stormed off and played a few holes before having a moment of clarity. "I was out there thinking, Man, my family is sacrificing so much for me to come here. It was like, What are you doing? Just listen to this guy, and see where it takes you. So I went back and apologized."

"I don't think we've had a cross word since," Swatton says. "From that day forward Jason outworked every other kid at the academy." Reading a biography of Tiger Woods inspired him to practice before school and during his lunch break. Day pulled a Tiger at the 2004 Junior Worlds, winning the 15-to-17 age division. He turned pro two years later, at 19, and moved to Orlando. With Swatton on the bag, Day played well enough at Q school to earn status on the Nationwide tour for '07. He won in the 11th start of his rookie year, becoming the youngest champion in the history of the tour. Afterward he raised eyebrows, and a few hackles, by declaring his intent to unseat Woods at the top of the World Ranking.

"It's so lame that they criticized him for that," says Ellie. "What is he supposed to say, I want to be No. 2?" Of course, he might have been feeling so full of himself because the maiden victory came on the first day Ellie saw him play.

Ever the trusty wingman, Swatton brokered the romance. While Day was still an amateur in 2005, Swatton was helping a friend launch a golf academy in northeast Ohio, not far from Ellie's hometown. He became a regular at Mavis Winkle's Irish Pub, where 19-year-old Ellie was waitressing to put herself through cosmetology school. Swatton began bringing Jason around, but as a 17-year-old who'd had only one girlfriend, he was rendered mute by her beauty. "He didn't say a word to me for a year," says Ellie.

Eventually they started texting. Two days after Jason's Nationwide victory they had their first proper date—dinner at Applebee's, with Swatton tagging along as a third wheel. Six months later Ellie moved in with Jason, to the consternation of their parents. "Things moved really fast," Ellie says, "but that's kind of the story of his life. He had to grow up really fast, so at an early age he knew what he wanted." Turning to Jason, she says, "You always wanted the consistency and stability of having a family and a solid girl, right?"

"Sure, I just haven't found one yet," he replies, earning a punch on the arm.

Ellie is as solid as it gets. She grew up with her own cow, Jack, and was a proud member of Future Farmers of America, once taking second place in a national competition as an ace milk taste-tester. Ellie and Jason were married in October 2009 in a barn near her hometown. That came at the end of two difficult years professionally for Jason. He rode a tailwind of hyperbole onto the PGA Tour in 2008 but struggled mightily, missing 15 of 28 cuts. His brash comments about being No. 1 became a kind of taunt. "All I cared about was making money, because I'd never had any," he says. "I was focused on the wrong things."

Six months after the wedding, he won the Nelson. Day says his struggles in 2012 were largely because he preferred to spend time with Dash, who was born that summer, instead of practicing. Last year was about finding the right balance between work and family, and his stellar play at the majors attests to his progress: In addition to the near-miss at the Masters, he tied for second at the U.S. Open and tied for eighth at the PGA Championship, his sixth career top 10 in 13 major appearances. Still, he had only the one victory. "He needed to be pushed out of his comfort zone," says Swatton.

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