A mental battle for Willett through the rough

Danny Willett. PA
Danny Willett. PA
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Former world No 1 amateur golfer Sheffield’s Danny Willett reveals to Nick Westby how hard he has fought this year to combat his first run of poor form in the professional ranks.

To fulfil his potential, Danny Willett appreciates that he must first get the process right.

The 24-year-old Sheffield golfer has long been earmarked for golfing greatness, all through his days playing amateur golf for Yorkshire, to topping the unpaid world rankings, to adapting so fearlessly to life on the professional circuit.

But as the wait for a breakthrough win that would open the floodgates to many more victories has gone on, so Willett’s patience has been tested.

Two years of regular visits into the top 10 of European tournaments was supposed to be good grounding for a third year in which the monkey would finally be flung from his back.

But instead of searching for wins, he is left searching for his form – 2011 has been, in his words, an ‘horrific year’.

The statistics underline his comment. Only one top 10 achieved, 11 cuts missed in 25 tournaments, and a position of 95th on the money list less than 12 months after he had finished 23rd on the ‘Race to Dubai’, ensuring an Open debut earlier this summer.

In a routine that has become all-too familiar for the preacher’s son, the game’s oldest major did not entice the best out of Willett, who packed his bags and left Royal St George’s two days before the outcome was decided.

Through all the travails this year from Celtic Manor to Madrid, Willett’s belief in his ability and his work ethic has never wavered, even if mentally he has been tested like never before.

“It’s been a bit of a struggle this year,” conceded Willett, who has hit the practice range hard in a bid to rediscover his touch.

“I’ve probably worked harder this year than most other years.

“I started the year well but once it all started to go wrong I found it difficult to find any motivation. I was practicing hard and not getting anything in return.

“I tried to reinvigorate myself by working harder but during a spell when you’re only making two cuts, it gets tougher and tougher to pick yourself up and go again. So, mentally, it’s been an horrific year.

“I’m an easy-going character; I train hard and I play hard. This year has been particularly frustrating and it’s been hard to keep my emotions under control when I’m out on the course, especially when you know you’re putting in the work.

“It does begin to grate on you. Once you’re on that downward spiral, it’s hard to get out of it.

“This has just been a bad eight months in what has been a pretty prosperous career.

“But there have been flickers in the last couple of months.

“I’ve just got to keep working hard and I’ll get myself out of it.”

Willett is a renowned work-horse on the tour, and if it means going back to basics with coach Graham Walker, he will do so.

Fine-tuning or remodelling, or heading for the sports psychologists’ couch – if an answer is there, he will find it.

He changed clubs from Ping to Callaway at the start of the year but dismisses that as ‘neither here nor there’ in discovering what has gone wrong.

Last week’s 20th-place finish at the Castello Masters – his best result for five months – illustrated that he is beginning to find his way again.

More pertinently, it all-but put to bed any lingering fears that his summer of toil would result in relegation from Europe’s elite circuit and a return to qualifying school. “Top 115 is covered,” he says confidently of the cut-off point that leaves a player without other exemptions, like Willett, without a tour card.

“The focus at the start of any year is to get your Tour card secured as quickly as possible.

“The top 115 is usually around 230,000 euros. Even if I didn’t play from now until the end of the season I should be okay (276,165 euros), because a lot of guys in the 110-120 bracket won’t get into all the events. Plus you’ve still got a couple of guys to come out of the top 115 who are not Tour regulars.

“But I can’t rest on my laurels. I want to finish as high as I can, and the Dubai World Championship (top 60) is still within reach. At times it can seem a million miles away, and that has been the case for me a lot this season, but then a good run at a big event and it can be close again.

“For me the job is to go out there with the same game plan as I always have.”

Willett’s season is not beyond salvation. After Valderrama this week – he shot a 75 yesterday – he has three tournaments in Asia to try and climb as high as he can.

As any golfer will atest, on any given week it can all come together and all that has gone before will be forgotten in a blur of champagne, giant cheques and a winner’s trophy.

“It’s just not quite happened for me this year,” Willett reiterates. “But I’ve still got time to transform my season. If I don’t learn from this experience then I’m never going to learn.”

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk