Jason Day focused on golf's major stage

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- It's Tuesday afternoon and Jason Day is hitting balls with one of his hybrids on the range at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Colin Swatton, his longtime caddie and mentor, is cleaning his clubs and grips and trying to dissect his pupil's swing.

"How is my setup, Col?" said Day, as he prepared for the 93rd PGA Championship this week.

"A fraction open in the shoulders," Swatton said.

The two Australians have been working together since Day was 13 and a student at the Kooralbyn International Academy in Queensland, where Swatton was the director of golf. Day was just one of the kids -- a slightly wayward lad who had been introduced to the game by his late father when he was 6 years old. Eventually young Day and Swatton would become inseparable and the future looked bright when Day won the World Junior in 2004.

"He had a lot of arms and a lot of legs," Swatton said of Day's early golf swing. "He was raw."

"Are you talking about when I was young?" said a smiling Day, as he reached down to pick up another ball.

"Jason had these Callaways that he could just kill," Swatton said, smiling. "But he didn't always know where it was going."

Before Tiger Woods ever met Steve Williams, he had won a Masters and three straight U.S. Amateur titles. He had been the No. 1 player in the world. He had gone through a couple of swing changes and had the first of many procedures on his left knee.

Sure, there had been other caddies -- an excellent one in Mike "Fluff" Cowan and a good friend in Bryon Bell, who will carry Tiger's bag this week. But without Swatton, Day most likely wouldn't be playing the PGA Tour. He became a surrogate father, a big brother, a caddie and a swing coach.

Their close relationship helps to explain how the 23-year-old has become the seventh ranked player in the world. Watching their rapport, it's easy to imagine them as more brothers than two men engaged in a business relationship.

"I think any relationship is what you make it," Swatton said. "We're really good about it. What happens on the course stays on the course. And what happens in our social life stays in our social life. We do a good job of just trying to keep everything separate."

Through the good and the bad, Swatton has been Day's rock. He credits Day's success this year to his student's increased comfort level on the course.

"Jason is a lot more confident in what he's doing and how he's preparing," Swatton said. "And that's obviously allowing him to finish off tournaments."

Heading into the PGA Championship, Day has eight top-10s in 16 starts, including second-place finishes at both the Masters and the U.S. Open. Playing in his first Masters, Day birdied Nos. 17 and 18 to shoot 68 on Sunday and finish at 12 under par. It would take birdies by Charl Schwartzel on the last four holes to overtake Day and his countryman, Adam Scott, by two shots.

Amazingly, that was only Day's third career major. His first was at last year's British Open at St. Andrews, where he finished 60th. At the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits he had a tie for 10th. At his first U.S. Open in June at Congressional, he played the last 45 holes without a bogey. His 8-under finish would have been good enough to win or earn a playoff in all but six U.S. Opens since 1948.

Day craves the big stage. You can see it in his confident stride and the way he carries himself.

"If I have an easy chip shot compared to a hard chip shot, I tend to concentrate harder on the hard chip shot than the easier ones. It's a lot harder and I know that I need to get up and down," Day said. "I'm not saying that the regular tour events are small, but on the big stage, where a lot of people are watching around the world, I tend to focus a little harder. But I would like to win any tournament."

Day arrives in Atlanta coming off of a tie for fourth last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, where he held the first-round lead after a 7-under 63. With 90-degree-plus temperatures expected throughout the week, Day is being careful not to over exert himself before the start of play on Thursday. He plans to play nine holes each on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"I think the hardest thing is to get enough rest," Day said. "Because obviously being in contention on Sundays in big events is very mentally and physically grinding. I don't think a lot of amateurs know how demanding it is on the body and the mental side of things when you're competing."

To help him with the psychological challenge, Day began working with Neale Smith, a former tour player turned mental coach, at the beginning of the year. Smith was on the range with Day on Tuesday afternoon.

"He's playing well," Smith said. "So what I'm trying to do this week is to get him comfortable with a strategy for this course and getting him familiar with the grasses and respecting what's going well and making the adjustments for this week."

Turning pro at 19 years old, Day wanted success fast and he got it, winning the 2007 Legends Financial Group Classic on the Nationwide Tour. But he didn't get his first PGA Tour win until last year at the Byron Nelson. He was brash and confident and he has had to eat some humble pie as he struggled to find his footing at the highest level of the game.

"My goal has always been to get to No. 1," Day said. "When I first came out here I thought I had to get there quick. But I have learned over time that you can't cut out the small steps and make a huge step. It's about taking those little steps to make the big steps. It's about the process and doing the little things."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com