Nick Westby: Danny Willett in position to thrive in golf’s elite club

Masters champion Danny Willett is congratulated by fellow Yorkshireman and Lee Westwood's caddie Billy Foster.
Masters champion Danny Willett is congratulated by fellow Yorkshireman and Lee Westwood's caddie Billy Foster.
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A quick glance at the names of English major winners over the last half a century underlines the enormity of Danny Willett’s accomplishment late on Sunday evening among the azaleas and the lush green fairways of the most hallowed and revered back nine of them all.

Tony Jacklin, Nick Faldo and Justin Rose. That is it, just three of them. And Willett now has membership to their exclusive club.

Danny Willett ahead of his first event as a regular member of the European Tour back in 2008.

Danny Willett ahead of his first event as a regular member of the European Tour back in 2008.

The 28-year-old from Sheffield, the son of a methodist minister and a Swedish mother, who spent countless hours honing his skills at Rotherham Golf Club, has shown the kind of steely determination that sets apart the elite from the unfulfilled.

Where English players like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Paul Casey repeatedly failed to take the decisive step their pedigree decreed was theirs for the taking, Willett proved thrillingly at Augusta that he needed no second invite.

Five strokes behind the game’s most exciting young player, Jordan Spieth, as he made his way through Amen Corner, Willett was calmness personified.

And when all around him began to lose their heads – Spieth inexplicably imploding on 12, Westwood chipping in for eagle, and Dustin Johnson charging through the field – Willet’s resolve strengthened.

Instead of greeting his rise to the top of a major leaderboard with three holes to play with fear or trepidation, as so many of his countrymen have done in the past, Willett found another gear.

Thoughts of what might be were cast aside as he produced some of the most nerveless golf over a closing stretch of holes ever produced by a British player.

It was the type of unflappable fusion of physical attributes and mental strength that is usually the reserve of a Rose, or a Rory McIlroy, or a Faldo in his day; major winners all.

Even when noise from the patrons as he set himself to find the fairway on the 72nd hole forced him not once, but twice, to back away from the most crucial shot of his life, Willett remained unfazed, and with his caddie Jonathan Smart he went back through the whole calming, routine again.

That there were still people shocked when he hit the middle of the fairway with his 280th shot of the week illustrates that even then, to some, Willett was the surprise package who was just playing at being top of a Masters leaderboard until a Spieth or a Johnson took charge.

But no longer will Willett fly under the radar at tournaments.

No longer will he be cast in the role as everyone’s canny outside bet.

The secret about him being a damn good golfer who not only feels comfortable in, but thrives on such pressure-cooker atmospheres, is out.

Willett is now big time. He has played himself into the major elite. Up to ninth in the world rankings after his Augusta heroics, the stats and the big prizes show he belongs with the best players of the day.

Fifteen years ago it was all about one man – Tiger Woods. As we move into the second half of the decade, golf is being shaped by a group of fearless twentysomethings with the ability to mix raw power with delicate finesse and mental fortitude.

If not at the vanguard of that revolution, Willett is now certainly part of it.

He showed that on Sunday night.

The ruthless manner in which he seized his moment brought to mind the way Spieth, McIlroy and Jason Day have made closing 
out the big major tournaments in recent years the trait of the new generation.

The next step for Willett is showing that his marvellous Masters was no one-off, that he can make the big three of Spieth, McIlroy and Day, the big four.

Few now will be surprised if he takes that next step.

There certainly will not be any one taken aback here in Yorkshire. The upward trajectory of Willett’s career, accelerated two years ago when he embarked on a run of consistent form that led to three victories worldwide and emboldened him with a winner’s mentality, has been well chronicled, especially in these pages.

From a first interview with him way back in his amateur days, that drive and focus was obvious amid the wide-eyed optimism that radiates from any ambitious sportsman.

Now the world of sport has finally seen it.