VIRGINIA WATER, England — The road to restoration has been both long and arduous for Danny Willett. Masters champion and ranked among the world’s top 10 when he arrived at Hazeltine National in 2016 for his Ryder Cup debut, the then 28-year-old endured a spectacularly traumatic week courtesy of his older brother’s ill-advised public rant regarding America and Americans. From there, the news, apart from the odd respectable week and a surprise victory at last year’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, has been almost unremittingly bad.
Until now anyway. With a final-round 67 that took him to 20-under-par 268, Willett held off the burly challenge of Spain’s Jon Rahm by three shots to win the biggest tournament on the European Tour, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. As well as earning a check for $1,166,660, the Englishman will move back inside golf’s top 50 for the first time since the PGA Championship in 2017 and, albeit just one week into the year-long process, sit atop the European Ryder Cup qualifying list. At this event only 16 months ago (what turned out to be his fourth missed cut in succession), he was as low as 462nd.
Unusually in a round where he made six birdies, the key moment in Willett’s day was his lone bogey, on the par-4 11th. After driving wildly to the right, Willett’s second shot hit a tree and finished deep in some heather. The next effort travelled maybe five yards into the bunker in front of his nose. The recovery from sand was only so-so, pulling up at least 40 feet short of his target. But the putt went in, dead center, and meant his previous two-shot edge over Rahm was halved rather than dissolved.
“Danny played amazing golf,” said Rahm, runner-up after shooting a Sunday 70. “He played really, really good. That 11th hole was the key moment of the match. That was at least a one-shot swing. If he doesn’t make it, I’m putting [for birdie] more relaxed without the whole crowd going crazy.”
Willett could only agree.
“It doesn't get much better does it?” Willett said. “An emotional week. It was a good battle out there today with myself more than anyone else. So it is nice to come through the other side. The 11th hole was a real big point in the tournament. I’ve watched a lot of the golf on TV, and the people who win every week are not the guys who hit every fairway and hit everything to six feet. Certain things happen, sometimes on a Thursday or a Friday. But for it to happen on Sunday early on in the back nine was crucial just to keep my nose in front. It gave me a little bit of breathing room down the last seven holes.”
While it would be an exaggeration to say that this latest victory, the seventh of Willett’s European Tour career, was expected, there have been hints of recovery over the last few months. In a season where he has missed nine cuts in 22 events across the PGA and European Tours, the Yorkshireman can point to a T-12 finish at the U.S. Open and T-6 at the Open Championship as evidence of continuing progress under the tutelage of swing coach Sean Foley.
“I’ve had an undying want to get back up there,” Willett said. “I was willing to change whatever had to be changed. I think that’s pretty hard to do. It’s hard to jump full throttle into something when you’re not quite sure if it’s going to work out or not. But I have been able to jump in there and I’ve had the correct people around me. All the work that we’ve put in has come forward.”
Elsewhere in the top 10, there was much of interest going on. The race to be leading American, something of a novelty when this event was played in May, but hopefully now an on-going feature, ended in a tie between Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed. Both distinguished themselves amidst the heavy cloudbursts that marred the final afternoon. Horschel’s 65 was the low round of the day, pipping Reed by a shot. Both finished 15 under par in a tie for fourth place, one shot behind South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who was alone in third.
“I feel like the game is where it needs to be,” Reed said. “Yesterday could have been a really special day just by making more putts. I had a lot of lip outs and a lot of burned edges. But to play as well as I did today in a world-class field and scare the leader board at the end, was nice.”
Horschel, as is his way, was even more enthusiastic. Having praised just about every aspect of this event all week, he was unlikely to back down after making five birdies, an eagle and no bogeys.
“I’m going to come over here every year,” he said with his usual gusto. “I think this event is world-class. The course is world-class. The European Tour does an unbelievable job. This is my first time playing over here in an event that wasn’t co-sanctioned with another tour. It was just fabulous. The fans were really warm and welcoming.”
A little further down the board, Rory McIlroy sneaked into a tie for ninth with a final-round 67 that meant the Northern Irishman played the final 54 holes in 15 under par. All of which only highlighted the sloppiness of an opening 76 that instantly left him with way too much to do if he was to win this event for a second time. Still, heading off to Scotland for next week’s Dunhill Links Championship, in which he will partner his soon-to-be 60-year-old father, Gerry, McIlroy was cheery enough. Although he claimed not to be the most contented member of the family.
“My dad will be happier than I am, because at least he now has a partner playing pretty well,” said the World No. 2 with a grin. “I’m pleased with how the last few days have gone. Obviously, it wasn’t a great start. But if someone had told me on Thursday night that I would be in a position to make the top 10, I would have taken it. All in all, it was nice to finish off with a couple of good scores.”
Another Irishman was smiling by the close of play. Showing signs of life for the first time since winning the Open Championship in July, Shane Lowry’s closing 66—and bogey-free weekend—hoisted him as high as T-11, the same mark enjoyed by Norway’s Viktor Hovland.