Saturday Interview: Grounded Willett has Georgia on his mind

Danny Willett of England holds the trophy after winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club in Sun City. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Danny Willett of England holds the trophy after winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge at the Gary Player Country Club in Sun City. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
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Before embarking on a journey that took him to Doral and Disneyworld, and ends next week among the azaleas of Augusta, Danny Willett made a point of going back to his roots.

On a frosty February morning, the 27-year-old from Sheffield loaded his clubs into the car boot and headed to leafy Thrybergh in Rotherham to play 18 holes with his friends.

Danny Willett at a media day to preview his appearance at the Masters. (Picture: Scott Merrylees SM1007/17d)

Danny Willett at a media day to preview his appearance at the Masters. (Picture: Scott Merrylees SM1007/17d)

“I played at Rotherham, went out with my best mate who caddies for Pete Uhlein and another good friend of ours,” says Willett, the world’s 47th-ranked golfer.

“We were playing for a bit of money, I got beaten, and there was a lot of banter flying.

“I like being able to walk into the clubhouse and no-one bats an eyelid. You walk in, have a drink, go and play golf, come back in and have a drink and a laugh with everyone that’s in there. It brings you back to normality.

“When you’re at competitions and you’re getting dragged here, there and everywhere to do bits and bobs, you don’t really get much time to sit on your own, to sit with the wife or just go to dinner without someone wanting something.

“I like to come home, lock the door, turn my phone off and have a bit of time on my own.

“It’s the main reason you come home between tournaments; cook for yourself, let the dog run wild and just relax.

“As good as Tour life is, that’s not my life, it’s being at home, being with my wife, being with my family and spending time with friends who you know through circumstances other than golf.

“That’s important to me.”

It is a slice of banality that on his rapid rise up the rankings, Willett is determined to cling to.

These last two years have certainly tested that resolve. Marriage, a new home and a change of management company have all been contributing factors to his greatest form on the golf course, which has seen him climb into the top 50 in the world and into the exclusive field for the Masters for the first time.

With that rise has come greater exposure, like the media day ISM had to stage for him to accommodate all the requests on his time, that a couple of years ago were alien to a player who has always tried to be amenable.

“I don’t mind the exposure. You know what comes with these things,” says Willett.

“Part and parcel of playing well and being up there is you’ve got other things that you’ve got to throw into the mix.

“You’ve got to make sure that your time management is good and you can do everything you need to do, and make sure you give the people that are trying to help you out enough time to help you achieve your goals.”

The need to meet the media so early arose because Willett was heading to America seven weeks before the year’s first major to get his game in preparation for the unique test of the Masters.

If a 12th-place finish at the WGC event at Doral, another competitive four rounds at Bay Hill and a few days with wife Nicole at Disneyworld in Florida in between is anything to go by, Willett will head down Magnolia Drive in form and relaxed.

He is also as excited about playing Augusta as he has been about any event in his first seven years as a professional, describing the wait for the invite to drop on his doormat like being a kid at Christmas.

“I was just waiting every morning and checking; phone bill, no; water bill, no; then it finally came through,” says Willett, who unlocked the door to the Masters by winning the Nedbank Challenge in December, easily the biggest achievement of his career and one that gave him the lead in the Race to Dubai standings, a position he still holds four months on.

“It was a bit like a kid at Christmas. Just something like the formal invite makes the whole tradition of the event special. You need to reply and say ‘yes, I’m coming’, it was an awesome moment.

“The best thing I can describe it as is Willy Wonka giving out his golden tickets and when you’ve got it you know you’re going.

“Everything around the Masters is that extra special. You book your flights, your hotel and a house three or four months in advance, whereas for a normal event it’s ‘right, where am I staying this week?’

“I’m told Masters week is pretty fun, but there are certain things they do that are really traditional, like the proper invite.

“There’s the par three competition on Wednesday.

“And I’ve been told that every time you stand on 16 in the practice round you’ve got to skim it across the water. I think Vijay (Singh) once had a hole in one like that.

“The week as a whole is going to be a very cool experience.”

But Willett is not just turning up to revel in tradition and ceremony. He is going to Augusta to continue his climb up the rankings and further his major education.

This will be his eighth appearance in one of the sport’s defining events, and with every passing one he feels more equipped to translate greater consistency in regular tour events to sustained challenges at the biggest tournaments.

“Majors are very difficult events to come out of the blocks in and win early in,” he says.

“There’s obviously a handful of people who’ve done it; Rory, Tiger.

“But you have to be more patient at a major than you do a normal golf event because as you’ve seen in years gone by at majors, ridiculous things can happen on the back nine on a Sunday.

“Someone can shoot 29, someone can shoot 45. The added pressure that goes into a major compared to other events means mentally you have to be prepared for a different week.

“There’s certain things that come with playing in majors and experiencing them.

“It’s a different vibe.

“You pitch up to an Open you know you’re going to be grinding a helluva lot that week, especially if the weather’s a bit tricky. Same with the US Open, you can never let your guard down.

“Augusta, I don’t know.

“My first time there might be quite tricky. You’ve got to go and really map the golf course out well, find out where the flags are, find out where you don’t want to be and under pressure what can you get away with.

“It could be a course that suits me, but, having not been there, I don’t know.”

One thing is certain, when he heads back down Magnolia Drive at the end of each day, Willett wants to be as relaxed as possible.

“We’ve rented a couple of houses that are pretty full but only with people I’m going to enjoy spending time with,” says Willett, who will be joined in Georgia by wife and close family.

“At the end of the day, you need to go back and be yourself, get in your tracky bottoms and sit and watch tv and have a bit of a laugh.”