The Open - Nick Westby: St Andrews has shown us Danny Willett can compete with the best around

NOT QUITE: Sheffield's Danny Willett rues a missed putt during the final round at St Andrews. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA
NOT QUITE: Sheffield's Danny Willett rues a missed putt during the final round at St Andrews. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA
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The pictures of him on the Swilcan Bridge with the Claret Jug clasped in his hands as the sun began to set over golf’s most iconic backdrop may have ultimately eluded him, but this week’s Open Championship should herald a bright new dawn in the career of Danny Willett.

For what he has shown to the wider golfing public over the past few days is something we have known for many a year in these parts about this third son of a Sheffield vicar.

From a promising junior at Rotherham Golf Club to a Yorkshire amateur champion and Walker Cup player in 2007, up to his blossoming as a professional with wins in Germany and South Africa, his has been a career on an upward trajectory.

The last 18 months in particular, have been one of constant progression; from huge pay cheques to regular events in America, a Masters debut and a WGC matchplay semi-final.

But over five protracted days at the ‘Home of Golf’, Willett propelled his career onto a new level – that of major contender.

The 27-year-old Yorkshireman was back page news for national newspapers on Friday and Saturday, with his immaculate game first putting him into the outright lead of the Open at times on that rain-interrupted second day and then into the final group for the third round, which eventaully teed off 24 hours late on Sunday.

That he failed to stride clear and break from the pack owes as much to the elements and the calibre of opponents on a golf course ripe for attacking than anything to suggest there are any fundamental flaws in his own game.

For if this extended week has taught us anything, it is that Willett has the game to compete at the top level: distance and accuracy with his drives, laser irons and the nerve when it matters most to hole the important putts.

Now for proving that week after week.

When this morning’s revised world rankings are released, Willett should have climbed from his pre-Open position of 39th towards the top 30 in the world, which would represent a career high.

He may even rise above Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter – household names in English golf – to become the country’s third highest-ranked golfer, behind former US Open champion Justin Rose and Paul Casey.

And that is where he belongs, if not in the very heart of the world’s elite, then certainly on its fringes.

For he is leading the next wave of English golfers – Tommy Fleetwood and Eddie Pepperell among them – who are on the verge of overtaking the big names that for over a decade have held centre stage without ever making the breakthrough.

Ever since the last rites of Sir Nick Faldo’s competitive career – a single-minded pursuit of glory which alienated him at the time but has been treated with growing reverence over 17 major-starved years – that group of English stars has tried and failed to replicate his achievements.

Westwood, Casey, Poulter and Luke Donald all captured the nation’s hearts with their Ryder Cup exploits, but have never been able to translate it into the individual tournaments that matter. Only Rose has shown the mental strength to cross the line.

The last few days at St Andrews could be a seminal moment in the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. And what better man to have running the anchor leg than Willett.

At the forefront of the English challenge all week, he was followed around the event by a Yorkshire flag and cheered to the end by a packed clubhouse at his home club of Rotherham.

He has the game and an evolving body of work. He is also developing the temperament, something which can only come with experience.

Willett now has the team in place to support him, led by the ISM chief Andrew ‘Chubby’ Chandler, and two hot properties in the sport at present; Mike Walker to work on his swing and Steve Peters to work on his mind.

Now for the next step.