Danny Willett’s victory drought was only about half as long as the one his fellow Englishman, Lee Westwood, had quenched a week earlier. And yet the depths to which the 31-year-old’s game had fallen since his last win, the 2016 Masters, made the nadir feel just as cold and lonely.
In 62 worldwide starts since slipping on his green jacket, Willett had posted seven top-10 finishes that were smothered by 25 missed cuts and four withdrawals, injuries confounding swing issues that made the newly minted major champion feel like an average hack.
Come Sunday at Jumeirah Golf Estates, however, Willett managed to make amends. A closing four-under 68 to take the title at the DP World Tour Championship, the European Tour's season finale, by two strokes over Matt Wallace and Patrick Reed.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” said an emotional Willett after birdies on three of the final five holes helped him stand beside Francesco Molinari, who claimed the season-long Race to Dubai title despite finishing T-26 for the week. “It’s been tough.”
Tied for the lead with Reed entering the final round of the European Tour’s 2018 season finale, Willett reflected on Saturday evening on just how “tough” it had become. He was candid and forthcoming about the difficult times.
“I was in a very, very dark place,” Willett said, whose World Ranking dipped to 462nd at one point and was only 276th to start the week. “There was no light coming through the trees. Just a big f---ing stump in front of my ball. I was despising golf, because it was like Groundhog Day, turn up, be in pain and repeat.”
Working with his instructor, Sean Foley, Willett admitted he set the bar low to start 2018. “We didn’t set any golf goals, just if that I could finish this season healthier and fitter than I started it we would be somewhere near,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’ve done. I've played six tournaments in the last seven weeks and the body has never felt better.”
In that time, Willett had posted T-7 at the Turkish Airlines Open, a little light starting to flicker.
There was still the matter of closing things out on Sunday, of course. And that job was aided by a 40-foot eagle putt on the second hole that gave him a bit of a cushion over Reed (who opened with a bogey) and Wallace (who started the day two back and closed with a 68).
Willett bogeyed the 10th and 12th holed to see the little fall back to one, but didn’t let the nerves get to him down the stretch. One stroke up on Reed as they teed off on the 17th, Willett stuck his 7-iron on the 201 yard par 3 to seven feet and converted the birdie while Reed missed the green and couldn’t get up and down (he would close with a 70).
A wayward drive that rolled into the hazard line made for a more interesting start to the par-5 18th, but Willett managed to hit his second back into the fariway to close with a “routine” win and a victory at least.
“You never know when a win is around the corner,” Willett said. “[But] I never was quite sure if it was going to happen again. It makes this special. It makes you appreciate it.”