Saturday Interview: Masters champion Danny Willett now coping with his major shift

Perfect fit: Masters champion and Rotherham Golf Club member Danny Willett wears the green jacket as he waves to supporters after his victory by three shots over American Jordan Spieth in April in Augusta, Georgia. (Picture: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Perfect fit: Masters champion and Rotherham Golf Club member Danny Willett wears the green jacket as he waves to supporters after his victory by three shots over American Jordan Spieth in April in Augusta, Georgia. (Picture: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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For a man who enjoyed the highs of becoming a major champion, an Olympian, a Ryder Cup debutant and a father in 2016, to describe that year as ‘turbulent’ offers an insight into just how much life has changed for Masters champion Danny Willett.

The revelation that it had not been a complete joyride came in the midst of a four-week run of tournaments in which for the second successive season he was bidding to end the year as Europe’s No 1 golfer.

Danny Willett at Rotherham Golf Club just days after winning the Masters. (Picture: Marie Caley)

Danny Willett at Rotherham Golf Club just days after winning the Masters. (Picture: Marie Caley)

Willett sounded jaded as he addressed the media in Dubai last month, and during that stretch of high-pressure tournaments, his play resembled a man battling niggling injuries and in need of a good rest.

His career zenith in April, achieved amongst the azaleas of Augusta, transformed his professional life beyond expectations.

That it came just days after the birth of his first child, an occasion that turns a personal life on its head like no other, meant Willett’s feet were unlikely to touch the ground for some time. So it proved as demands on his time increased ten-fold. He returned from his Masters triumph to an airport terminal at Manchester full of well-wishers and camera bulbs. His drive was blocked by television crews when he arrived home to his Lindrick estate.

The whirlwind had begun; increased media and sponsor commitments, more invites to sporting events, nappies to change. Willett has embraced as much of it as he could and often lets his social media followers know with a ‘selfie’ in front of a helicopter as he jets off to Anfield, Silverstone or Wimbledon. He even threw the first pitch at Yankees Stadium.

Danny Willet during the final round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Sunday, March 6

Danny Willet during the final round of the Cadillac Championship golf tournament, Sunday, March 6

“If you didn’t like the profile or being watched then you wouldn’t play this game to as higher standard as you could,” Willett tells The Yorkshire Post.

The man from Sheffield was reaping the rewards until the turbulence arrived at Hazeltine, Minnesota, in late September when a Ryder Cup debut that should have provided another career high produced a very sour twist.

His brother, Peter, who was an overnight social media ‘sensation’ the night Willett beat Jordan Spieth to win the green jacket, wrote a now infamous article condemning American golf fans.

Suddenly, Willett’s Ryder Cup debut was about only one thing. His preparation was rocked and his game suffered as he lost three out of three in a crushing defeat for Darren Clarke’s men.

His mum, dad and wife Nicole, who followed him for every hole, bore the brunt of the retribution from a loutish element and the player himself, who had been forced on the defensive all week, could no longer hold his tongue, resorting to social media to voice his disapproval of the fans.

The Ryder Cup is supposed to be a great celebration of golf, but the experience brought Willett little joy and the repercussions of it may be felt every time he returns to America. Lesser individuals would allow it to overshadow their year, but Willett is made of sterner stuff, and to do so would do everything he has achieved over the last two years a huge disservice.

For, just because his golf has not reached the same level as that he produced at Augusta, does not mean this fiery competitor might never return to such heights again.

Far from it. He is as dedicated to his profession as the next man, and once the work-life balance clicks into place, watch him soar again. The numbers over the last two years bear that out. Four victories on four different continents, consecutive second-place finishes on the European Tour money list, an Olympic debut and a rise into the top 10 of world golf.

For his Masters victory alone, the Rotherham Golf Club member deserves as much praise as can be sent in his direction.

Three behind at the start of the final day, Willett reached the turn at two under par and bang in the hunt. The tournament was Spieth’s to lose and some would argue that when the American took seven on the par-three 12th he did just that, but the Yorkshireman still had to show nerves of steel to get the job done.

To watch him hit a tee shot to within a matter of feet at the 16th moments after assuming the lead, then chip across the treacherous 17th to ‘gimmie’ range and stroll up the 18th as casual as you like, was to witness a man in complete control of his game, and looking like he had been in that position many times before.

“I know people say Jordan gave it me, and if he made double down the last then you could probably say he did give it to me, but the mistakes came mid-round,” says Willett. “I still won by three, it’s not like I won by one.

“If I’d have shot five under and lost, I could have held my head up high, regardless of whether I’d have won or lost that day. I played some great golf and gave myself the opportunity to do something.”

Do something he did, becoming just the fourth Englishman in half-a-century to win a major – historical context which further emphasises the enormity of the accomplishment.

As he looks back now, Willett can pinpoint a distinct moment in time when the penny dropped and he started to believe he could reach those heights.

“The Open at St Andrews (2015) helped a lot, playing under that pressure for four rounds,” says Willett of a sixth-place finish. “Playing with Zach Johnson in the final round, who went on to win it, was massive. Realising you’ve not got to be super-human to win a major.

“He played his own game all day and didn’t let the moment affect him. For me to watch how well he played and how calm he was helped me refocus a little bit.

“Then getting to play with Rory (McIlroy) and (Henrik) Stenson at the end of last year, seeing how they do things.

“Do they do anything different, and can I use it? I’ve just been taking snippets from a lot of great players I’ve had the chance to play with and putting it into what I do and seeing if there’s any marginal gains I can take.

“The more you play with great players, the more you realise that a) you’re a great player yourself and b) that you can take things from what they do and how they cope under pressure.”

Willett has yet to watch a recording of his Masters triumph. “I’ll probably sit down and watch it all the way through over the Christmas period and go over it in my head, watch how things unfolded,” he says.

Every now and again his mind flashes back to that Spring evening, and the place in golf’s rich tapestry that he has etched for himself sinks in a little more.

“I look at the green jacket and think, you know what, 86 guys have won the Masters and you’ve got one of those jackets hanging up in your wardrobe,” he says with a smile.

“It was fortunate that that week was my week. It all fell into place for me.”

He is currently in Hong Kong, back in contention at a tournament as he gets his 2017 season underway with his final tournament of 2016.

When he heads home tomorrow night for a month-long hiatus from the fairways, maybe he can afford himself a moment to reflect and he might not think of it as a ‘turbulent’ year after all.

“It was a hectic few months for a time, but it’s steadied itself out and I’ve got used to a lot of the extra stuff. Winning the Masters was unbelievable. But then a few weeks later, you’re back out there trying to get better.”

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