The Rookie: Danny Willett

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A stunning finish to 2014 saw England’s Danny Willett secure a spot in the world’s top 50 and with it a Masters invitation – so what exactly is he expecting?

Four thousand miles. That’s the distance between Augusta, Georgia and Sheffield, South Yorkshire. The home of the Masters is a considerable journey from Danny Willett’s home city, but before December it wasn’t even on the radar.

Majors are hard to qualify for and none more so than the Masters, where the organisers have palpitations whenever the field approaches 100 players. Willett’s only chance was to move into the world’s top 50, but at 103rd heading into last year’s European Tour Final Series, he needed something special. A consistent showing in the Race to Dubai climax (T21, T4, T21) set the platform, but he was still only 83rd with two events left in 2014. The first was the Nedbank Challenge in Sun City, South Africa.

“Going into the week was a bit strange,” he says. “I’d been playing nicely all year and not really done anything too special. It was just one of those weeks where we kept plugging away, not doing anything stupid. We holed a few nice putts at crucial times and stuck to our very aggressive gameplan.”

That aggressive gameplan saw Willett turn a one-shot deficit at the start of the final round into a four-shot lead going up the last. “Even then, you’ve seen strange things happen,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was on the last green in two that me and Jonny (Smart, his caddie) had a wry smile to ourselves and enjoyed the walk. Having five putts to win is never a bad thing!”

The win propelled Willett to 56th in the world. Good, but still not good enough for a Masters invite. “It wasn’t until I had a good one the week after and finished fourth (at the Alfred Dunhill Championship) that I got high enough up there for people to say there’s a good chance I could be in. I was 51st, but set to move to 50th with Kevin Streelman dropping out.”

Willett still couldn’t rest easily though, with the Asian Tour’s season-ending Dubai Open offering friend and compatriot Tommy Fleetwood one last chance to overhaul him with a top-17 finish. “Chubby (Chandler) called and asked me about playing in Dubai,” explains Willett.

“I knew what Fleets needed so I thought about it. I was off the back of two good weeks, but was a bit tired having been away for a while. In the end I thought there’s plenty more chances to get in so missed it. It’s nice to do it before Christmas, but it’s not the be all and end all so we went home and took some time off. I was watching the leaderboard and didn’t realise how good the field was. I thought I’d made the wrong call!”

Willett

Fleetwood missing the cut meant Willett’s spot was secured. Any hard feelings between them? “Of course not! We were practising before Abu Dhabi and I didn’t say anything to him as I guessed he’d be feeling pretty rubbish. But he came up and congratulated me and we had a laugh about it.”

Seeing two young Englishmen battling it out for a place among the game’s elite is indicative of renewed strength among the nation’s professionals, something Willett is keen to highlight. “English golf is producing a few good players again,” he says. “It goes in cycles. Some countries turn out great players every year, but it’s been about eight years since we produced a good stack of players in Poults, Lee, Donald and Casey. We’re in one of those veins of form again where there are a few guys coming through and putting themselves in winning positions. Fleets has won, I’ve won a couple of times, Andy Sullivan recently and Fitz (Matthew Fitzpatrick) is on Tour now too. It’s good for the game.”

So what’s taken so long? “England’s got a fantastic amateur golfing body, but we don’t integrate it into professional ranks as well as other countries do which is why you get the gaps,” explains Willett. “It takes a few years to adjust, regardless of how good your game is or how mature you are mentally. It takes a little bit of time to get used to the lifestyle out here and playing these types of golf courses.”

Now 27, Willett was touted as the next big thing seven years ago after a stunning six-month spell saw him win the English Amateur Championship, appear in the Walker Cup and become the No.1 amateur in Europe in early 2008, before earning his 2009 Tour card at Q-School. Life on Tour was a different story, though, with injuries and a loss of confidence limiting him to one victory (the 2012 BMW International) before his Nedbank triumph last year which saw him labelled a “rising star” in some quarters. The tag amuses him.

“People see a good result and say ‘this could be the making of him’ but they don’t realise the work you’ve put in over the last 14 years,” he says. “People call you an overnight success because you’ve won, but actually it’s taken over a decade and a hell of a lot of hard work to see those two wins. Yes, it could have been more, but I’m happy.” And well he might be, with the latest victory ensuring a very special delivery. “I was in the gym with my physio at the start of January and I saw the postman. I knew a Masters invite was coming at that sort of time so we stopped, went to the door and there it was!

“We took a couple of pictures and enjoyed the moment. To get it then and be able to plan my schedule was massive for me. It really helps me manage myself and my game so I can go there and try to compete.”

The planning has already begun, with Willett pencilling in a few practice rounds with experienced campaigners. “We’re playing with Stenson and his caddie, Gareth Lord, the week before and then flying to Houston for the PGA Tour event that week,” he says. “We’ll do the same with Lee (Westwood) and Billy (Foster), hopefully. It will be good to get some information from the best players in the world, having them talk me through where pins will be, where hazards are, the best lines into things and so on. I want to pick their brains about it to get a really good understanding of how some people play that golf course.”

Willett is understandably excited to tread the turf he’s watched on television for many years. “The moment that really sticks out is Tiger’s chip on 16 in 2006,” he says. “And I remember Phil holing that putt on 18 for his first one and jumping in the air. That was awesome!  “It’s clearly a special place. The 12th is the hole that’s always got me when I watch it on TV. You look at it and think it’s just a short yardage with a short iron, but people are making a right hash of it! I guess when I get there I’ll realise why with the wind swirling around, a bit of pressure and thousands of people stood 10 metres behind me – that probably makes it a little bit more difficult.

“What am I looking forward to most? Driving down Magnolia Lane; that first tee shot; the approaches to 13 and 15; and then hopefully coming up the last on Sunday at a good time of the day. That would be nice.”