This story appears in the Aug. 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
AFTER A SUNDAY MELTDOWN that cost him this year's Masters, Rory McIlroy knew he needed help. He'd four-putted the par-3 12th hole on his way to a humiliating final-round 80, and his flatstick needed fixing. He hired putting guru Dave Stockton Sr., who saw a solution: Raise Rory's left hand to keep his wrist solid through impact. "The lower the hands are, the more putts go left, and that's where most of Rory's misses were," Stockton says. Ten weeks later, McIlroy rolled in 19 birdies and an eagle in setting the U.S. Open record for lowest score. Easy game.
Competitors took note. Many of golf's hottest players heading into the PGA Championship (Aug. 11-14) have also recently tweaked their games. It's only fitting. The host course, the Atlanta Athletic Club, will play plenty hard, after a Rees Jones redesign that toughened the bunkers and added 254 yards. At the year's final major, there will be meltdowns, but these five players seem cool enough to handle the heat.
World Rank: 1 (Start of 2010: 28)
Telling Stat: Par-5 birdie-or- better average: third on tour (2010: 106th)
Problem: Despite a classic swing and a short game to die for, Donald entered 2011 an enigma -- only two wins in almost a decade on the tour.
Solved: Now he's the 15th golfer to reach No. 1, and suddenly he's feasting on par 5's. Why? Stats say the 33-year-old Englishman has improved his third-shot wedges (from 154th to first in approaches from 75 to 100 yards), but Pat Goss, Donald's coach, cites sharper driving; Donald has leaped from 120th to 30th in driving accuracy. "Luke has worked this year on getting more width and shortening his driver swing," Goss says, which should serve him well on AAC's sun-baked fairways.
World Rank: 9 (2010: 140)
Telling Stat: Scrambling, fifth on tour (2010: 51st)
Problem: Superstardom was predicted for Day since he won his first Nationwide Tour start at age 19, but success and a reliable short game have eluded him.
Solved: The 23-year-old Aussie credits his improved short-game stats -- including a move from 35th to second in sand saves -- to smarter practice habits. "It's not about hitting 50 more balls than you used to hit," Day says. "It's about ... practicing the way you play on the course." He now cycles among 10 chips, 10 bunker shots and 10 shots from the rough and says the stunning 45-hole bogey-free stretch he conjured at the U.S. Open depended largely on his scrambling. Next stop, superstardom.
World Rank:10 (2010: 32)
Telling Stat: Approaches from 75 to 100 yards: second on tour (2010: 76th)
Problem: Watney has climbed the world rankings, but what most remember was his collapse at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he entered Sunday with a three-shot lead only to shoot 81 and finish T18. After the season, both player and coach Butch Harmon judged Watney's wedge play bluntly. "Terrible," Harmon says. "We made improving that our main goal."
Solved: The coach saw a too-handsy swing. The fix? "A shorter, tighter swing where the arm speed and the body speed match up," Harmon says. "Nick's worked real hard on it." And he's reaped the rewards: Through mid-July, Watney, 30, had pocketed $4.2 million in winnings.
World Rank: 26 (2010: 101)
Telling Stat: Total putting, 10th on tour (2010: 116th)
Problem: At last year's Barclays, Laird, the Great Scottish Hope, needed to two-putt from 25 feet on the 72nd hole to win. He three-jacked it and lost a playoff to rising star Matt Kuchar. Guh.
Solved: Laird hired putting coach Dave Stockton Jr. (yes, the son of McIlroy's guru), and their work since has focused on being natural, not technical. Out went the alignment line on his ball. Ditto practice strokes. The 28-year-old Laird now takes his stance while eyeing the hole, then pulls the trigger ASAP. "Dave wants me to use my feel and eye," Laird says. Redemption was sweet: Laird two-putted from 87 feet on the 72nd hole to take the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational by a shot.
World Rank: 40 (2010: 959)
Telling Stat: Greens in regulation from other than fairway, ninth on tour (2009: 121st)
Problem: A former Division II college basketball player, Woodland was famously long. Unfortunately, he was also famously crooked.
Solved: Woodland, 27, has taken a page from Ben Hogan's book by trying to eliminate hooks and any trouble left off the tee -- although largely through equipment. "We built a club that doesn't go left," Woodland says. The lie angle of his Titleist 910D3 was flattened 1.5 degrees, the clubface was opened 1.5 degrees, and to make triple-sure the clubface stays open through impact, rat glue was injected into the clubhead's toe for extra weight. "It's not that I'm hitting more fairways, but I know where the ball's going now."