The side of Danny Willett more golf fans should get to know
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The first time I sat down to talk to Danny Willett was on the Tuesday of U.S. Open week in 2016 at Oakmont. Willett was two months removed from winning the Masters, and two months and a week removed from becoming a father for the first time. He was five minutes late.
Athletes being a little bit late—or a lot a bit late—is hardly unusual. And, when they’re doing me a favor by giving me time, as Willett was doing, I don’t feel as if I’m in a position to complain. Especially about five minutes.
Willett walked into the Oakmont locker room, shook hands, sat down and said, “I’m really sorry I’m late. I had some trouble getting in.”
Trouble getting in?
“I gave the tournament car to Nic [his wife, Nicole],” he said. “We’re staying in a house just across the street from the players parking lot. I figured I’d just walk over. Got to the gate, guard said, No walk-ins. I showed him my player badge and told him my wife had the car. He told me I had to go down the block to the public gate to walk in.”
Willett shrugged. “No big deal, but I’m sorry you had to wait.”
No big deal. The Masters champion, carrying a player badge with his photo on it, being told to go wait in line to go through security because he wanted to walk into the player parking lot. I tried to imagine how most other players would have reacted. I tried to imagine how I would have reacted.
That’s Danny Willett. He rarely sees himself as special or privileged, even though he’s a major champion and now—again—one of the better players in the world. That’s why I sat last Sunday and watched him win the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship with a smile on his face. Willett being back as a factor in golf can only be a good thing.
During that same conversation at Oakmont, I noticed a tattoo on Willett’s arm. I asked him if he thought he might be the first Masters champion with a tattoo. He leaned forward, looked around and said, “Don’t tell the chairman.”
Danny Willett’s genuinely funny.
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“It was a pretty long road back,” Willett said on the phone this past Thursday a few minutes after he opened the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship with a one-over-par 73 at Carnoustie, the round marred by a double bogey at the 18th. “I remember playing in the Bridgestone just before the  PGA at Quail Hollow, and I was awful. Worst golf I can ever remember playing. I just couldn’t play. I knew nothing I was doing was right.”
Willett finished last among the 76 players who started and finished that World Golf Championships tournament in Akron a little more than two years ago with a four-round 21-over-par 301—37 shots behind winner Hideki Matsuyama. Willett didn’t even have the luxury of going home to sulk on Friday because it was a no-cut tournament.
That Monday, he invited Sean Foley to dinner at the house he was staying in for the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Willett cooked steaks, and he, his caddie/longtime friend Sam Haywood, Willett’s father and Foley talked late into the night.
“It was four, five hours,” Willett said. “I knew Foles a little bit already and felt I needed someone with his personality to work with me. Someone who would know when to put his arm around me and someone who would know when to kick me in the butt. But I also knew when I committed to working with him that it was going to get worse before it got better, because everything we were going to be doing was going to be completely different from what I’d been doing up until then.”
Willett had worked most of his life with Pete Cowen. Willett had also split with longtime caddie Jonathan Smart earlier that year and had eventually hired Haywood, who was the best man in Willett’s wedding.
Willett was right about not having bottomed yet. His play did get worse his first few months with Foley before it slowly started to get better. By the time Willett missed the cut in the 2018 BMW PGA Championship—played then in May—he had dropped to 462nd in the world after being ranked ninth the week after his Masters victory.
“When you know how good you can be, and you can’t get back to that point, that’s where they lose their mind,” Foley told Golf Channel last year about the challenge of working with a player of Willett’s caliber who is struggling to regain his form.
“It was a rough time, those couple of years,” Willett said. “I was getting home on Fridays a lot, which in a sense was good because I was getting more time at home with the family even if it was time I hadn’t planned on.” (Willett’s boys, Zachariah and Noah, are now 3½ and 21 months.)
“But I was feeling so terrible about my golf, I wasn’t doing a great job as a dad. Plus, I was still in pain a lot. It’s hard to play bad golf, be in pain and feel as if you aren’t getting the job done at home either. Not a fun time.”
Willett has had back issues dating to 2013, that often forced him to curtail his practice and occasionally withdraw from tournaments. He says he’s now been virtually pain free for five months. “Haven’t been to a physio for that long,” he said. “That alone has made a huge difference.”
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Willett’s play began to slowly but steadily improve in the summer of 2018. He joked about having to adapt to afternoon tee times on the weekend because it had been so long since he’d had any of them.
“I could see that it was coming even though my results weren’t spectacular,” he said. “I could feel it in the moves I was making from the takeaway forward. When you start to feel like things are working, it motivates you to work that much harder and keep at it because you go from hoping the process is going to work to knowing that it’s just a matter of time—and patience.” He paused. “The patience can be the hard bit.”
The patience finally paid off last November when Willett put together the best four rounds he’d played since winning the Masters, shooting 67-67-68-68 to win the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship by two shots over Matt Wallace and Patrick Reed.
The victory helped convinced Willett that he was ready to commit to splitting time between the European Tour and the PGA Tour. He bought a house in Orlando and set up a six-months-here/six-months-there schedule for him and his family.
“The boys don’t really start school full time for another two years,” he said. “So, for now, we can go back and forth freely. I love both our houses and having them with me a lot of the time on the road. We’ll cross the bridge about where to go to school when we get there.”
Willett got off to a slow start in 2019 and was understandably disappointed when he missed the cut at the Masters. He was five over par after seven holes and never recovered. But his play in the majors improved as the year went on. He was T-41 at the PGA, but then T-12 at the U.S. Open and T-6 at the Open Championship—easily his best performance in a major since the win at Augusta.
And then, last week, came the win at Wentworth. Tied for the lead with Jon Rahm after 54 holes, Willett shot an almost flawless 67 going head-to-head with Rahm in the final group to win by three. The victory jumped Willett back to 31st in the World Ranking, meaning he’ll be in all the WGC events next year in addition to the majors, where his exemption for winning the Masters is good until 2021.
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The victory also brought Willett’s brother, Pete, back into the public eye. On Sunday morning, Pete, who also goes by P.J., tweeted he’d decided not to make the trip to Wentworth with his kids since he didn’t think Danny could beat Rahm. As the day went on, Pete stuck to it: “Still think I made the right call,” he tweeted at one point, before surrendering and trumpeting his brother’s victory at day’s end.
When I asked Willett about Pete’s tweets he said, “Honestly, I didn’t know that. I don’t even pay attention to Twitter anymore. There’s nothing but trouble there.”
Pete Willett first became a public figure while tweeting during the last round of the Masters as his brother was shooting a bogey-free 67 to win—aided by Jordan Spieth’s two balls in the water at No. 12. Pete Willett commented on Spieth’s pace of play, on whether his brother could hang on to win and, most hysterically said at one point, “There’s a chance they’re going to put a green jacket on someone I took baths with as a little boy.”
Then, the week of the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National, Pete wrote a magazine piece parodying the American team and American fans. In truth, it was funny. The American players and many fans didn’t see it that way. European captain Darren Clarke was so concerned about fan reaction that he pulled Willett from the Friday morning pairings, much to Willett’s distress.
“They were going to be on me no matter when I played,” he said. “Why not just get it over with Friday morning.”
Willett played—and lost—three matches while he, Nicole and his parents were hooted and jeered mercilessly throughout the weekend. When someone asked Willett in Europe’s Sunday post-match press conference to assess his first Ryder Cup, he gave one of the great one-word answers in sports history:
“S---,” he said.
When he was then asked if he could expand on that answer, he gave one of the great two-word answers in sports history: “Really s---,” he said, cracking up the entire room.
Willett came nowhere close to making the European team in Paris but now, after one week, sits atop Europe’s Ryder Cup points list.
“It’d be nice to make the team [for Whistling Straits],” he said. “I’d like to play in a lot of Ryder Cups going forward, but it’s fair to say I’d love to go there next year in good form.”
Willett will probably be there. He’ll probably get heckled. My guess is he’ll handle it this time around. I, for one, will be pulling for him.
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