AUGUSTA, Ga. — The man who won the Masters two years ago signed his scorecard Thursday afternoon and walked out of the scoring cabin to be greeted by an Augusta National member who asked if he would mind talking to the media for a few moments.
Danny Willett asked for a minute to greet his wife, Nicole, and then headed up the hill to meet the media horde awaiting him.
One reporter. That was it.
Willett grinned. “Happy someone wants to talk to me,” he said with a laugh.
Willett had just finished a three-over-par 75, that put him into a tie for 56th place one round into his fourth Masters. And yet, his mood was almost cheerful, in part because he had recovered from an awful front-nine 41 to shoot two-under 34 on the back, but also because he honestly believes he can see light at the end of the long tunnel his career has been in since his stunning victory here in 2016.
“Things got compounded,” he said. “I can look back at a lot of things and say, ‘Maybe I should have done it differently,’ but that doesn’t matter now. I think I’m doing things right now. I feel better physically. Not perfect, but a lot better.”
Willett has had back issues on and off dating from 2013, but was healthy enough to finish second to Rory McIlroy in the 2015 Race to Dubai before his stunning Masters win the following April. That was the day Jordan Spieth put two balls in the water at the 12th and Willett shot a bogey-free 67 to win by three strokes.
It was one of the out-of-nowhere wins in golf history. Willett had played well a year earlier, winning once in Europe, finishing third at the World Match Play and sixth at the British Open. Still, no one expected him to win the Masters in his second try—especially after he was the last player to arrive in Augusta, flying in on Tuesday night, six days after the birth of his first child.
“Funny thing is, after we agreed I’d go and play, the plan was for me to take off four weeks after playing here,” he said. “I didn’t play for four weeks, but I probably spent three of those weeks travelling and doing things I wouldn’t have been asked to do if I hadn’t won the Masters.
In highsight, Willett hints that that’s where his problems likely started. “I got invited to play places overseas because I was Masters champion and did more travel than I should have done,” he said. “It got harder to practice as much as I wanted and it was tough to get myself started back in the right direction.”
And then came the 2016 Ryder Cup, an event Willett had dreamed of playing since he was a boy. He arrived at Hazeltine National more excited than he had ever been to play, thrilled to be part of the European team.
He was scheduled to play the first morning with Lee Westwood, but never got the chance because his brother Pete, a talented satirist, wrote a magazine piece making fun of the American team and American fans. Although the story was clearly tongue-in-cheek, the Americans—feeling a bit desperate anyway—took it personally; players and fans. European captain Darren Clarke decided to sit Willett the first morning, hoping that might calm the waters before he played.
It didn’t. Willett, his parents and Nicole were booed and heckled for three straight days. Willett didn’t play horribly, but he didn’t play well—losing all three matches including a critical match Saturday afternoon when he and Westwood both missed birdie putts on the 18th hole that would have given Europe a critical half point.
Willett, who has a quick sense of humor much like his brother, did produce a few seconds of hilarity during Europe’s post-match press conference on Sunday, after the U.S. had finished off its 17-11 victory. Asked to describe his first Ryder Cup experience, Willett said, ‘s---.’ Asked if he could elaborate, Willett nodded and said, ‘really s---.’
Willett still finds it hard to laugh off what happened that week in Minnesota. He knows his brother’s piece was funny, but shakes his head and says, “ill-timed, to say the least.”
Willett had been playing well coming into the Ryder Cup, having finished second in Italy a week earlier. Since then, his career has been nothing but struggles. He missed 11 of 19 cuts in Europe in 2017 and finished 224th on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup points list. In the last year, Willett has split with his caddie, Jonathan Smart; his manager, Chubby Chandler; and his long-time teacher, Pete Cowen.
“Fresh start type of thing,” he said Thursday, referring specifically to the work he’s done with Sean Foley after the two connected last summer. “I went to Foles because I needed a different voice, and he had some ideas. I’m just now getting to the point where I can spend a long time on the range and be pain free. Every once in a while I’ll make a bad swing and I’ll feel it in my back. It’s happening less and less. But now when it does I just shut down.”
Willett did that at Bay Hill, withdrawing after the first round. “I didn’t play poorly,” he said (he shot an even-par 72). “But I woke up Friday feeling pain from a couple swings I’d made that I knew were bad ones. I didn’t want to push it, so I withdrew.”
Willett has only made one cut this year in five starts, but he’s feeling optimistic for a number of reasons. To begin with, his second son, Noah, who was born in December, has started to sleep six hours a night since the family arrived in Florida last month.
“Happened just like that,” he said grinning. “All of a sudden he started going from 11 to 5 every night. I said to Nic one morning, ‘It’s amazing, I feel like a normal human being.’ Sleep is a wonderful thing.”
So is health, and Willett thinks the new swing he and Foley have been working on can keep him on the range longer and that will get him closer to playing the way he was playing here two years ago.
On Thursday, he got off to a horrible start, playing the first seven holes in five over par. “It was discouraging,” he said. “I wasn’t driving it badly, but I was missing it in spots where you can’t miss it on this golf course. I know better. I know where you can’t afford to miss. Then on seven, I made an awful 6; tried to get cute with a chip. You can’t get cute on this golf course either. It’s going to be a disaster.
“I finally calmed myself down on the eighth tee. I said, ‘Come on, you aren’t playing that badly. Don’t let the day get away from you like this.’”
He made his first birdie of the day on the difficult 11th with two gorgeous shots, then birdied 13. He back-pedaled with a bogey at 14, but birdied 16 to put himself at least within shouting distance of the cut line.
“Better start tomorrow,” he said. “Better days ahead.”
If so, the media horde will be back soon enough. Even though some people may have forgotten, Willett is a Masters champion.
“I’m 30,” he said. “I look at Phil and Tiger playing well in their 40s. No reason I can’t get back to playing well and be able to keep playing well for a while. In the grand scheme of a golf career, a lost year-and-a-half isn’t that much.”
Clearly, Willett is ready for that lost time to be over.