Sheffield’s Danny Willett relieved to be playing without pain again after fine start to The Open

To say it has not been a great year for Danny Willett would be a massive understatement, with the 2016 Masters champion catching Covid-19, having a wisdom tooth removed and then needing surgery for appendicitis and a hernia.

England's Danny Willett chips out of a bunker on the 6th. Picture: PA

To say it has not been a great year for Danny Willett would be a massive understatement, with the 2016 Masters champion catching Covid-19, having a wisdom tooth removed and then needing surgery for appendicitis and a hernia.

But 2021 could yet include a career-defining moment after the 33-year-old from Sheffield made an excellent start to the 149th Open at Royal St George’s.

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Seeking to become the first English winner of the Open since Sir Nick Faldo in 1992, Willett birdied four of his last eight holes to card an opening three-under-par 67.

Yorkshire's Jonathan Thomson. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

“Playing for the first time pain-free was delightful,” said Willett. “The hernia healed up all right but they go in in three places and tore my obliques with one and that’s really been hurting.

“It was joyous sneezing without it hurting for the first time on Saturday. That sounds stupid but that’s where I’ve been. It was a good job we caught it so soon. I saw the doctor on the Sunday of Memorial. If we had left it, who knows?

“And who knows what else 2021 will bring? It might finish well. I hope so.”

Willett has slipped to 115th in the world rankings and is outside the automatic qualifying places for the Ryder Cup, but was invited to a dinner for potential team members by European captain Padraig Harrington during last week’s Scottish Open.

Huddersfield's Marcus Armitage. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

“I’m still hanging around because of winning at Wentworth (2019 BMW PGA Championship) but I’ve never had a good enough run to progress,” added Willett, who was out of form and failed to win a point on his debut at Hazeltine in 2016.

“Covid came along and I had to drop out of the Players (Championship), which dropped me out of the top 64 for the match play, which knocked me out of the top 50 for other things.

“I haven’t done that much wrong but things haven’t gone in my favour.

“As long as I’m fit and healthy and can still swing a golf club, anything can happen.

“There are big points up for grabs from here on in and I’ve obviously played before. If by some unforeseen miracle something does happen for me, I’ll be familiar with the guys who will be in the team.

“It was a nice gesture (by Padraig) and it was nice to see all the guys again.

“When he started telling stories I did get some tingles again. It is definitely something I want to do but I do feel it has been left just a little bit late this time.”

Huddersfield’s Marcus Armitage celebrated his 34th birthday with an impressive opening round of 69.

Armitage teed off in the opening threeball to fire a one-under par round.

Sheffield’s Matt Fitzpatrick and Rotherham’s Jonathan Thomson are both in contention to beat the cut after shooting 71s.

But it was a tough day for fellow Yorkshire trio Nick Poppleton, Sam Bairstow and Ben Hutchinson.

Poppleton, of Wath, was in the final group of the day coming home in 75.

That was the same score of amateur Bairstow, of Hallowes Golf Club, two shots better than Howley Hall’s Hutchinson, who returned a 77.

Two years after starting the Open Championship with a quadruple-bogey eight, Rory McIlroy began his first round at Royal St George’s with a birdie three.

And although the four-time major winner was unable to build on that ideal start, McIlroy was happy to battle back from a hat-trick of bogeys on the front nine to card a level-par 70.

“It probably doesn’t make a huge difference at one over or even this early in the tournament, but mentally it feels a bit better to birdie the last and I’m looking forward to getting back out tomorrow,” McIlroy said.

Doncaster’s Josh Berry just missed out to England boys team-mate Harley Smith in the battle for the McGregor Trophy.

Smith emerged victorious after a thrilling finale to the 72-hole stroke play event at Camberley Heath Golf Club, Surrey.

Rounds of 67, 66, and two closing scores of 69 in the event for Under-16 boys gave the golfer from Rayleigh, Essex, a winning total of -13 and a one-shot victory from Berry.

Berry closed with a round of 67 for a -12 total – with Smith edging clear thanks to three straight birdies from the 11th.

Berry added: “It was a tough ask after the first two rounds. I played to win today and came up just short. It is what it is.”