Masters 2014: Jason Day on verge of a major breakthrough

April 6, 2014

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.'"

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.

Jason Day 2013 Masters

Fred Vuich/Sports Illustrated
A bogey at the 16th on Sunday derailed Day last year at Augusta, but he still has six top 10s in 13 major starts.

Last Nov. 8, Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines with winds up to 195 mph. Day was in Australia, relaxing with his family and gearing up for the World Cup, in which he was to play for his home country alongside his good mate Adam Scott. Based on the early reports, Dening believed her family members were safe. But days went by without any contact, and finally her brother was able to make his way from Manila to check on the missing relatives. "They were gone," says Dening. "Everything was gone." Her mother and another brother perished in the storm, along with six cousins, part of a death toll that exceeded 6,000.

Jason has never visited the Philippines, but he was devastated for his mom. Still, Dening insisted he compete in the World Cup to honor the lost family. Her son played some of the most inspired golf of his life, joining with Scott to win the team title and holding off his countryman for individual honors. "My daughters and I, we couldn't stop crying," says Dening. "Our hearts were full of so much happiness and sadness."

Day connected with his ancestry in a new way by helping organize aid to the Philippines, and being there for his mom and sisters galvanized the family. "We're all closer than we've ever been," he says.

It's one of the many reasons that Day says, "I feel more settled than I ever have." In an act of true love, he has forsaken year-round golf weather to relocate with Ellie and Dash to Columbus, Ohio, so they can be close to her large extended family. (It doesn't hurt that Muirfield Village is 20 minutes down the road; Day is a member, allowing him access to the excellent facilities and to pick Jack Nicklaus's brain.) How comfortable Day has become in his own skin was obvious during sudden death of the Match Play final. After Dubuisson pulled off a second straight miraculous escape from the desert, Day just shook his head and laughed. "That was like a summary of his entire career," says Shear, his trainer. "He could have hung his head and said, 'Ohmygawd, I'm never gonna win again.' I wanted to see what Jason's face looked like at that moment, and when I saw his smile, I turned to my wife and said, 'There's no way he can lose.'"

The next logical step for Day is to finish off a major championship. Augusta National appears to be the perfect venue for him. Why? "Because he hits it high and long and straight," says Scott. "That's a good recipe around there." Anywhere, actually. Adds Martin Laird, "His putting and chipping are ridiculous. He's known as a bomber, but I'd put him in the top five on Tour for short game."

When he looks back at last year's Masters, Day thinks not of the final-round birdies on 13, 14 and 15 that propelled him into the lead but rather what happened next. "Walking to the 16th tee, it felt like I had shortness of breath because everything started getting really quick," he says. "It was like, Man, I've got to slow things down. But I couldn't. It's like you're in a car on snow or ice and you're trying to keep it straight. But it doesn't want to go straight." He failed to account for the extra adrenaline and airmailed the green, leading to a bogey.

Now, in pressure situations, Day slows himself down by talking through his options with Swatton. But a perilous road is a good metaphor for a player who has traveled so far. Over the phone from Australia, Dening is asked what she thinks sustained her son during his long journey to stardom. The line goes silent for a few seconds while she considers the question.

"Belief," she says. "He always believed he could make it. I don't know how, but he did. That's the most powerful force there is. Belief."