Rest period is well-timed for Willett as he looks to climb rankings again

England's Danny Willett tees-off on the 2nd hole during the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Golf Club, Surrey. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.
England's Danny Willett tees-off on the 2nd hole during the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Golf Club, Surrey. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.
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When Danny Willett mounted a sustained challenge at the BMW PGA Championship two years ago, the media were getting ready to write the tale of the next great hope of English golf.

The 22-year-old, from Sheffield, shared centre stage with the best players on the European Tour at Wentworth before eventually finishing in fifth place for the biggest cheque of his career.

After just 18 months as a fully-fledged member of the continent’s top circuit, and two years in all playing European Tour events, Willett had amassed 12 top-10 finishes and had broken into the world’s top 100.

The former top-ranked amateur made his major debut at the US PGA Championship later that summer and finished second to world No 1 Martin Kaymer at the Alfred Dunhill Links at St Andrews.

A maiden victory appeared imminent.

Eighteen months on from a summer of making big noises, Willett has yet to deliver an emphatic statement.

He managed only one top-10 last season, and although 2011 was highlighted by an Open debut at Royal St George’s, the fact that he failed to qualify for the weekend provided an insight into his season.

Willett spoke at length of the mental challenge he was facing as he struggled to back up his early promise.

He was also dogged by injuries, one after another that prevented him progressing as he would have liked. As the search for his first win went on, Willett also changed club manufacturers at the start of the 2011 campaign, switching from long-held supplier Ping to Callaway in a six-figure deal.

The Rotherham Golf Club member, though, is not a bad tradesman, and did not lay the blame for his downturn in fortunes on his tools.

Instead, he knuckled down with coach Graham Walker at The Oaks, York, to fix what needed mending.

He returns to Wentworth this week speaking a lot more optimistically than he did 12 months ago when he missed the cut.

A third-place finish at the Malaysian Open in April, coming amid a run of five straight cuts made, served to convince him that he was back on the right track.

And the reason for his revitalisation? A good old dose of rest and recuperation.

“I had a good break at the end of February and that helped me get over a few injuries I’d been struggling with,” said Willett.

“I had a rib injury, pulled my left groin and had other little niggles that basically all backed into one another.

“It was just one thing after another. I was advised to take a year out to get my body back to fitness, but at my age, and in this business, you can’t do that and I didn’t want to do that.

“So I had a few weeks out and that rest really helped and I’m feeling as fit as I have done for a long time.

“It was good to be back in a position to challenge at Malaysia last month, to get the juices flowing again.”

The upward curve of Willett’s career has seen him rise to 44th in the Race to Dubai rankings and back into the coveted top 60 that he fell out of last year.

From a career-high position inside the top 90 in the world two summers ago he finds himself back in 197th place, with no prospect of appearing in the majors this summer unless he can qualify or earn his breakthrough win.

Hence his excitement ahead of this week’s PGA at Wentworth, the Tour’s flagship event.

Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood – the three Britons at the top of the world rankings – are the headline acts.

But with that trio now based predominantly in the United States, and prize funds decreasing on the ever-expanding European Tour, events like this and opportunities for regular professionals like Willett to go head-to-head with the best in the world, are few and far between.

Indeed, aside from the Open Championship at Lytham in June, this is the only tournament in England this year.

And Willett, who craves the chance to one day see his name alongside his former Walker Cup team-mate McIlroy, believes that state of affairs needs addressing.

“Tournaments like this should happen more often because players like Rory, Luke and Lee prove that the European Tour is a really strong tour,” he said.

“It’s just a shame that money is the driving force and there’s not that much out there in Europe. It’s a tough one because you can understand the big guns wanting to go where there’s the most money and the most ranking points on offer.

“But it all comes down to the fact that we need more English and British tournaments.

“I’ve banged on about this before. When I first came on tour I was gutted that the annual tournament at the Belfry had been dropped from the schedule.

“I used to love going to that event as a fan. The crowds were always big, and like the Irish Open and the Wales Open, fans always come out in their numbers especially if the weather’s good.

“It has an impact further down the field as you get more young British players playing in the home events and that can only maintain our current strength at the top of the world rankings.

“And with the changes they’ve made to the course, particularly the 18th, it’s going to be another exciting week.

“That closing par five used to be a great eagle chance, then last year they made it too difficult. It will be somewhere in the middle this week.”

Willett is joined at Wentworth by a pair of fellow-Yorkshiremen.

Hull’s Richard Finch arrives £38,446 richer after reaching the last 16 of the World Match Play in Spain, while Leeds’s Danny Denison makes his debut in the tournament, fresh from making the cut at the Madeira Open.

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk