By Tim Wharnsby
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - A disillusioned Jason Day arrived five years ago for his first Masters but he was hardly full of eager anticipation about the prospect of finally playing Augusta National competitively.
Rather, a glum Day contemplated quitting golf as he sat across the road from Augusta National in his customized bus with his agent, sports psychologist and wife Ellie, his two Dachshunds nearby.
The Aussie was disheartened after mediocre performances in his three previous tournaments, but his team persuaded him to persevere and try to have fun and enjoy the Augusta National experience as though it might be his one and only time at the storied venue.
The pep talk worked. He finished tied for second, two shots behind South African winner Charl Schwartzel, and has never looked back.
"Then I loved the game again," Day, 28, said. "It's emotional highs and lows in the game of golf, and times when you're going through very, very rough times and you're hating the game, usually it's because you're not working hard enough, and it was."
Now Day is lauded for his work ethic.
"He went from the ninth best player in the world to like Tiger Woods, unbeatable," said compatriot Adam Scott, who had a practice round with Day on Tuesday. "Jason is really, really driven.
"For a long time he couldn't put his finger on it and then all of a sudden he did. Jason just got it all figured out."
Day will begin his sixth Masters as the heavy favorite. He is the world number one, and winner of six of his last 13 tournaments, including back-to-to back wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Match Play.
He also won the final major of 2015, the PGA Championship, and finished tied for ninth at the U.S. Open, despite a debilitating vertigo attack, and a shot out of the playoff at the British Open.
Day usually arrives on site at majors a week before the first round to prepare. For the Masters, he even likes to watch past Masters to study the game plan of the past champions.
Day also credits Tiger Woods for pushing the current generation of players to perform at such a high level.
“It was just amazing what he could do as an athlete in our sport,” Day said. “He changed the game of golf for the better.
“Now, you see the results of it because there's myself, Jordan (Spieth), Rory (McIlroy), Rickie (Fowler), Hideki Matsuyama from Japan ... There are numbers and numbers of guys who are young, because of what Tiger did back in the day, that got us into the game of golf today."
With so many talented players in the field, Day is reluctant, publicly at least, to consider himself the Masters favorite.
"I enjoy and thrive off that competitiveness," he said, talking about the prospect of a leaderboard packed with the biggest names in the game.
"I would enjoy a Spieth, McIlroy, Fowler, Scott, (Bubba) Watson, (Phil) Mickelson Sunday. That would be a lot of fun."
(Editing by Andrew Both)