Danny Willett looking to place himself in pressure situations by challenging regularly at the top

SHEFFIELD'S Danny Willett is relishing a change of status as he looks to defend his Nedbank Golf Challenge title and take a massive step towards securing a Ryder Cup debut next year.

Sheffield's Danny Willett talks about defending his Nedbank Golf Challenge title (Picture: Getty Images).
Sheffield's Danny Willett talks about defending his Nedbank Golf Challenge title (Picture: Getty Images).

Willett was 83rd in the world before his victory at Sun City 12 months ago but has returned to South Africa ranked 20th - Justin Rose is the only higher-ranked Englishman - and fresh from finishing second on the 2015 Race to Dubai.

The 28-year-old is therefore unsurprisingly one of the favourites in the 30-man field at the Gary Player Country Club, where a successful title defence would increase his Ryder Cup points tally to 1.9m. Jamie Donaldson secured the final qualifying place for Gleneagles last year with 2.6m.

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And having turned down a PGA Tour card in order to maintain his focus on the European Tour, Willett wants to experience what it feels like to start events with more pressure on his shoulders.

"This next year I'll be knuckling down playing in Europe and trying to get another couple of wins, getting in contention and becoming familiar with being in contention a lot," Willett said.

"I want to see how I cope with the pressure of pitching up to events as one of the favourites and expecting to win. It's going to put a different spin on how I approach things and how I cope with different situations. Depending on how next year goes I might take a PGA Tour card the following year. For the time being I'm concentrating on Europe and we'll see where it takes us."

One thing Willett will not be changing is his approach to this week's event, having secured victory 12 months ago with an 18-under-par total of 270 thanks to closing rounds of 65 and 66.

"If you want to win you've got to take the golf course on," Willett said.

"If you're happy with an average result you can play it conservatively and ease your way round, but I think I'll have the same strategy and try to do something good again.

"The course sets up for people who hit it straight. If you can drive the ball well you're giving yourself nine irons into greens, which are a lot easier to control than a six or seven iron when you're hitting into small greens with the wind swirling round. I'll be trying to be aggressive off the tee at the right times and take it from there.

"I said from the get-go (last year) there are a few holes where it's driver or three iron off the tee and you could have a 100-yard difference. Coming into the greens with a wedge or a five iron makes a massive difference, so we said let's just man up and take on the line which will give us a better birdie chance.

"The reverse side is that if you don't drive it well you're going to make a few big numbers, but in a field of only 30 you're going to have to shoot some good numbers, looking at the winning scores from previous years. If you settle for par you're not getting anywhere."

Another player looking to boost his chances of a place on the European team at Hazeltine is Scotland's Russell Knox, who will make his first appearance as a full European Tour member at Sun City.

Knox, 30, won the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai last month and would have earned more than 1.2m points in Ryder Cup qualifying if he had been a Tour member at the time.

"I'm thrilled to be here," the world No 27 told reporters.

"It's my first event as a European Tour member and it's my first time ever to South Africa, so it's a pretty cool week for me.

"It feels like I'm on vacation - it's a shame I have to play golf. Seriously though, it's a big event and is a great opportunity to get some points on the board early in the season. It's a fantastic way to finish the year."