Masters triumph is the spur for Danny Willett when golf returns

Danny Willett celebrates his Masters win in 2016 (Picture: PA)Danny Willett celebrates his Masters win in 2016 (Picture: PA)
Danny Willett celebrates his Masters win in 2016 (Picture: PA)
At times like these and on days like today, Danny Willett would be forgiven for being overcome with misty-eyed nostalgia.

He would, after all, have been teeing it up at Augusta National for the first round of the Masters Tournament.

“From Sheffield, England, the 2016 Masters champion, Danny Willett.”

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Two nights ago he would have been at the champion’s dinner, sharing a joke with Nick Faldo or Bernhard Langer perhaps, talking mod cons with Jordan Spieth, tucking in to whatever dish Tiger Woods served up after that most miraculous of Masters 12 months ago.

Champion: Danny Willett, wife Nicole and son Zachariah James with the trophy after winning the BMW PGA Championship.Champion: Danny Willett, wife Nicole and son Zachariah James with the trophy after winning the BMW PGA Championship.
Champion: Danny Willett, wife Nicole and son Zachariah James with the trophy after winning the BMW PGA Championship. | PA Wire

All of these privileges the Yorkshireman earned four years ago when he took everyone but himself – and those who quietly suspected it – by surprise by storming to victory on Augusta’s fabled back nine. 

But instead of being among the dignitaries at golf’s most exclusive bit of real estate, Willett was at home with his wife and two young boys, revelling in the extended family time the coronavirus-enforced shutdown has afforded him, but equally chomping at the bit to get going again.

Because while reflecting on his major breakthrough of 2016 provides him with an enormous sense of pride, it also serves as an inspiration that he has the game to get back to those heights again.

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He has certainly felt the lows, plummeting from his Augusta high to the mid-400s in the world just two years later after a run of form hindered by problems with his back and issues with his game. He slowly rebuilt his team and subsequently his game, earning victories in November, 2018, at the DP World Championship and September, 2019, at the BMW PGA Championship that pointed to an inner strength.

Augusta: Danny Willett in Masters action last year.Augusta: Danny Willett in Masters action last year.
Augusta: Danny Willett in Masters action last year. | Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

The Rotherham Golf Club member may not be a serial winner on tour, but when he gets the whiff of victory in his nostrils there are few more fearsome competitors, as his wins at Augusta, Dubai and Wentworth suggest.

“We’ve always been pretty good when we’ve been in position. It’s getting into position that’s the tricky one,” Willett told The Yorkshire Post this week from his base in Florida.

“The win in Dubai was a really nice experience. It was a big win to come from where we were in the world rankings. It’s more the way we did it, going up against Johnny Rahm, Patrick Reed, Rory (McIlroy), the guys in form. To go up against those guys and beat them is a nice feeling.

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“It was the same at Wentworth, down the stretch with John (Rahm) for basically two-and-a-half days, just tussling it out. To do that just proves where we’re at within ourselves. To come from a bad place to where we are now, gives us a mental resilience, shows that you know you can do it.

“Going forward, I feel in a really good place to go and do some more good things.”

Asked to try and explain what it is that puts him alongside the very best when he gets into position, he says: “You can’t really teach that stuff. You can teach them how to play and how to putt, but you can’t teach them how to close out golf tournaments, how to putt well under pressure.

“You can’t teach anyone about the times the hands are shaking and you’ve got that little voice in your head telling you you can’t do it. They are the kinds of things it’s nice to have in your arsenal. The back nine on a Sunday should be an enjoyable experience. You’ve got the chance to do something, the chance to showcase your skills, and see your name on the leaderboard.

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“The one thing you’ve got to keep doing is getting yourself in that position so when you do get a chance you give yourself the best possible sniff of polishing it off.”

It is that self-belief that will embolden Willett when the golfing world clicks back into gear, whenever that might be.

He says he is content with where his game is at right now, how his body is holding up after years of back troubles, and how strong his mentality is. Extended family time is proving good for the soul – “to help Nic (wife), to help the kids with their learning” – and it is also giving him time to build a strength and fitness base for when play resumes.

The team around him is secure, led by coach Sean Foley, who came in in early 2018 when Willett ‘had a bit of a change-up’ of his whole team, ‘to try and get better’. By that stage, he needed digging out of a hole, and he accomplished that. No mean feat, because as he puts it, ‘golf can be a lonely existence when things aren’t going your way’.

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Through it all, he at least had the green jacket hanging in his wardrobe, which for a while looked like it would be as good as it got – not that being just the fourth Englishman for half-a-century to win a major championship should ever be downplayed.

But instead of reflecting on the events of four years ago this weekend with an air of completion, he will do so with a genuine belief that he can get there again. “Do you know what, I haven’t even watched it back,” he says. “I’m doing a couple of live Instagram things with the back nine this week, so I’ll be watching it then, probably with a massive smile on my face, with a beer in hand and enjoying what we were able to achieve that week.

“They are memories of a fantastic week, on and off the golf course, Zac had just been born, Nic was healthy. It was just a really special week. The ability to perform and to achieve that leaves a lot of good memories for upcoming years.

“The game hasn’t been in a position the last few years where I thought that I could do it again, but it leaves you hungry knowing the ability is back, the game is good. Hopefully, we get a couple of chances the next couple of years to do the same again.”

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