There’s a lot to like about Danny Willett. Not only is the 27-year-old Yorkshireman one of Europe’s leading players – and a strong candidate to make his Ryder Cup debut next year – he is also one of the most approachable and personable. In the best sense of the phrase, even as he has earned what he calls “ridiculous amounts of money for someone my age,” the Sheffield lad has retained a down-to-earth quality. This is a man whose two best friends on tour are caddies.
“When we are all home we might go for a game and a bit of a giggle,” he says of his pals. “I see the physio in the morning, then go for a lesson and play in the afternoon. After that it might be a few drinks and a game of snooker. That’s life for me. We just mess around really. What I don’t do is live the same life I have on tour. After a few weeks off, I’m always excited to be back on tour. I hate pitching up tired after too long on the road.”
Part of why Willett is so grounded is his background. The son of a Church of England vicar and a Swedish-born mathematics teacher and the second youngest of four brothers, Willett has never been allowed to be the big shot in his obviously close-knit family (his parents twice re-mortgaged their home to finance his golf when he was an amateur).
“My dad, as you’d expect, is pretty philosophical,” Willett says. “My mum, being Swedish, is more straightforward and blunt. I’ve had times when I’ve wanted an arm round my shoulder and I’ve been given a kick up the backside instead. Which is how it should be. “I’m almost jealous of family’s ability to do ‘ordinary’ things. When I was playing in the Irish Open this year my parents were at their house in Wales, where they’ll retire. They were on the beach every day, waking up whenever they wanted. And I was slaving away, getting frustrated because I wasn’t hitting it on a string.”
Willett also speaks with great affection of his brothers – Sam has just finished his A-levels, Peter is a teacher in Birmingham and Matt is a fireman in Sheffield. In a roundabout way, the elder siblings are responsible for their younger brother’s career path.
“When we went on holiday as kids we played all sorts of sports,” Willett says. “I could never compete with Peter or Matt. But when we were in Anglesey we went to play a par-3 course. Suddenly I was the best player, even if I was smaller. I didn’t need to be bigger or quicker. So I took to it right away. It was a way for me to get my own back really.”
It soon became apparent that Danny was capable of being more than the best golfer in the family. After starting to take the game seriously at the age of 11, his progression through the amateur ranks was rapid. “I got into the Sheffield squad, then the county squad. From there, I graduated into the England Boys scene. Then I went off to college in America.
“I was there for two years. I came home in the summers and played pretty well in the amateur stuff. That got me in the England side. It was a pretty traditional route into the professional game. People ask me if a US college is the way to go and I think it is. I grew up fast. You have to get on an aeroplane and leave your parents.
“I adapted pretty well. I was used to doing stuff for myself. There were six of us in the house at home – four lads – so my mum couldn’t do everything for us. We had to get on with it. Dinner wasn’t waiting for us every night when we got in, so we all took a turn in the kitchen. I was able to look after myself in the States.”
Willett did more than that, of course. In a golfing sense, he grew up quickly during his time at Jacksonville State University in Florida.
“I learned how to practise properly, and manage my time,” he explains. “I was in the gym six days a week. I had to qualify for the team on a weekly basis. And I had to keep up a grade average that was decent enough to maintain my eligibility for the team. Throw all that in the pot and you have to be organised. I was lucky in that our coach was more of a mentor than a swing instructor. He was great with the fitness aspects and great at talking to us, always very positive. He never came to the range to tell us we were too inside, too upright or too steep. He left us to it.”
Left to his own devices, Willett developed a highly repeatable action, one distinctive for the early ‘set’ of the club in the backswing. But it makes sense, at least to its owner. “If you set the club correctly early, all you really have to do is turn,” says Willett, who was English Amateur champion in 2007 and the number-one amateur in the world before he turned professional the following year. “It’s that simple. If I get the club in position with my shoulders ‘loaded,’ I can just elevate to the turn then come back down. At my best, that’s all I think about.
“I don’t think my swing is ever going to change in how it looks. But the feeling of it has changed. It feels wider. But when I see it on camera it still looks narrow to me. At first it was a conscious move, but not now.”
Still, for all that he arrived in the professional ranks widely hailed as the Next Big Thing, having played alongside Rory McIlroy – and against the likes of Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel and Dustin Johnson – in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down, Willett took some time to adapt. And once he did, a back injury further slowed his progress.
“My back set me back about 18 months or so during my third year on tour,” he recalls. “Still, over the last two seasons – even though I’ve had to withdraw from maybe five events – it has been much better. It’s an ongoing thing and is sometimes not great. When it’s cold I struggle. It was an edema on L-5, S-1 on my spine. It needed to settle down basically. And golf is not the best sport you can play with a bad back.
“I have to watch myself. I can practise as much as I want most of the time. But I have to make sure I move correctly and do all the stretches both before and after. I have to stay loose. So it’s something I have to work around.
“I know I could maybe have been where I am now a couple of years earlier. But that’s life. I take positives from it. It has been difficult and frustrating – especially mentally. It was hard sitting at home watching guys I know I can beat doing well at tournaments. I would rather have been playing. So although waiting for my body to get better was hard, getting my head round it all was worse. But those were the cards I was dealt so I just had to get on with it.”
And that he is now doing rather well. Three times a winner on the European
Tour, Willett has made great strides in the last 18 months or so. Two of those victories – the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa and the European Masters in Switzerland – have come since November last year. Then there was his impressive showing at the Open Championship, where he finished tied for 6th. Throw in an impressive third place in the WGC Cadillac World Match Play Championship in San Francisco and it is clear Willett is likely to spend more of his time in the United States next year.
“I like matchplay and I liked the course (Harding Park),” he states. “It was a bit like the UK with the speed of the greens and the weather. And it wasn’t just a bomber’s paradise. Controlling your ball flight was important. I like all of those things. So I played well. I was under par in every match. And I got lucky in that it took a while to find someone who played better than I did. Gary Woodland was 5-under and I was 3-under when he beat me on the 17th.
“It was unfortunate that I played well again in the afternoon and he was a few over par. But that’s matchplay. And I was happy with a third-place finish. It gave me a taste of success over there and I would like more.
“I will be taking up my PGA Tour card for next year. Then I’ll play a schedule that I feel gives me the best chance of performing on both tours. The minimum is 15 over there and 13 over here. But eight events count on both tours. It only gets difficult if you fall out of the top 50 on the world rankings. How I do this year will hopefully help, though. If I finish high enough on the Order of Merit I’ll get into a few of the big US events next year. It’s really all about being in the top 50 and playing well at the right times. If you do that, you’re laughing.
“I’ve already talked to Lee (Westwood) about whether I need to move over there. He told me he managed fine when he lived in Worksop, so I don’t see any need to move to the States permanently. He said I should pick the events I want to play in, know my schedule and stick to it.”
As you’d expect of one so inherently observant, Willett is realistic enough to know that golf PGA Tour-style is far from perfect. “I like America,” he says. “The courses are fantastic. The conditions are great, to the point where they are almost the same every week. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Take the Irish Open this year at Royal County Down. You can’t get any purer golf anywhere in the world. But a lot of Americans would hate it. I think it’s a great test because we don’t get to do it very often. As a player, you learn a very different form of golf than you do in America.
“Over there, you see guys on runs where they play well almost every week. That’s because they pitch up and they could be at the same course they played the week before or three weeks before. The greens will be the same speed. The rough will be the same height. The fairways will be the same width. But outside that comfort zone they struggle, at least initially. Apart from the top guys. For them, I don’t think it makes much difference. But a regular PGA Tour guy would be up-and-down on the European Tour.”
All of which doesn’t sound anything like Willett himself. He is a golfer very much on the up.