DANNY WILLETT | ARCHIVE
For one of the top fifty golfers in the world, it’s hardly a masterclass in meticulous planning: your wife expecting your first child on the Saturday of Masters week. Still, Danny Willett doesn’t care. Not. One Jot.
Sure, impending fatherhood might disrupt the 28-year-old Englishman’s hopes of winning his maiden major championship at Augusta next April but so long as Willett Jnr arrives safe, sound and healthy, he’ll be more than happy.
“I’d rather be a good dad than a good golfer,” he says in his trademark chirpy Yorkshire lilt. It’s a little bit more gruff than usual, though, after a night on the tiles. But we can excuse him that given that his wife, Nicole, is pregnant.
“It’s a different chapter in my life, I guess,” he adds. “It puts everything else in perspective, doesn’t it? It makes mishits seem not as important as they maybe used to be.”
Not that he has had to concern himself with many mishits this year. In many ways, 2015 has been the making of Willett, with a third European Tour title - acquired in commanding fashion at the Omega European Masters - supplemented by strong showings in both the WGC-Cadillac Matchplay Championship, where he finished third, and the Open Championship, in which he finished tied for sixth having been tied for the lead deep into the back nine of the second round.
“It’s been a very good year,” he nods. “Very consistent. Everything’s been bang on and it’s nice to see my hard work paying off.
“Obviously, the Open was fun. I had a good week. I just didn’t quite polish it off but there you go. It was nice to be in that position in a major, though. It’s something I hadn’t ever had before, so it was good experience and especially because it was at St Andrews.”
The Open was comfortably Willett’s best performance in a major championship to date. His previous best finish had been a tie for 15th in the same event two years earlier and he says that notching his first top ten on one of golf’s four biggest stages has been good for his self-belief.
"It showed that my game is good enough,” he says. “It showed me that when I play good, I can contend with the best players in the world. I mean, yeah, your world ranking will show you where you’re at but there’s no substitute for being able to put in performances that are worthy of that ranking that say, ‘Yeah, I belong here’.”
Having started the year in 50th place on the world rankings, Willett has climbed as high as 24th.
“That’s something I’m really pleased with,” he adds. “I’ve managed to get myself right up the rankings and stayed there. It’s not been a case of a few weeks and then I’ve dropped back down. I’ve kept myself up there and that’s really important.”
As a consequence, his profile has improved and his odds have shortened. He’s noticed that, too.
“It’s nice when you see that the bookies have got you as one of the favourites and other things like that,” he admits. “I’m not really the sort of person who’s bothered about other people’s opinions of me but it’s always nice when their opinion is good.”
Born Daniel John Willett on October 3, 1987, golf has been a part of Danny’s life for almost as long as he can remember.
It was his dad and, in particular, his two older brothers who got him started. “I had to find a sport I could beat them two at,” he laughs, “and golf was it.” At age 12, he began to take it more seriously and, within two years, he was a part of the England boys’ set-up.
A couple of years at Jacksonville State University followed, where he won a host of honours. More than that, he grew up. “In terms of development, those two seasons were great,” he acknowledges. “My golf was alright throughout but the biggest changes were in the way it made me mature a lot as a person. You’ve got to look after yourself, time-schedule yourself, do all your washing, make all your own meals, all your own cleaning. You’ve got no option but to grow up and grow up quick.”
In 2007, he won the English Amateur Championship and, in the September of that year, played on the same Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team as Rory McIlroy. Unfortuantely for them, they were beaten to the punch at Royal County Down by a US side boasting the talents of Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Billy Horschel and more.
Still, there was no derailing Willett’s amateur career and, in March 2008, he found himself at the top of the men’s World Amateur Golf Rankings. A few months later, he turned professional, earned his European Tour card at qualifying school and hasn’t stopped since.
As we speak, he is second on the Race To Dubai and the third highest ranked Englishman on the world rankings behind Justin Rose and Paul Casey. The way things are going, he will be in with a fighting chance of making ISM stablemate Darren Clarke’s European Ryder Cup team for next year’s match at Hazeltine.
Wisely, though, he isn’t letting himself get carried away at that prospect.
“It would be nice, yeah, but it’s one of those ones where, apart from play really good golf, there’s not much else you can do to make it happen,” he says. “It’s not really a ‘goal’ goal but it’s one of them that, if you can tick it off along the way, then great.”
Willett admits that he can’t really remember watching too many Ryder Cup matches growing up. The first one that springs to mind is the 1999 contest at Brookline - “That was a bit of a bad one, that” - but his favourite one to date happened only three years ago: the ‘Miracle at Medinah’.
“I remember coming up early to St Andrews for the Alfred Dunhill Links in 2012 and watching it all happen,” he recalls. “It was the Sunday night and we thought we’d just have a couple of hours in the Dunvegan, watch a little bit of the golf and then get to bed because we figured it’d be over soon and the Americans would win. Well, four in the morning comes around and we’re all jumping about on the tables! That was an unbelievable night.”
Unusually, Willett turned down the option of taking up PGA Tour membership for the 2015/16 season. He did enough to qualify for a card but decided against it.
“We weren’t ready to up and move everything over there just yet,” he says. “With the little ‘un on the way, I’d much rather be at home and be dad for a while. Golf’s my job, it’s great fun and a great way of life but that’s all. So, my plan is to try and play a good bit at the beginning of the season, get some good results under my belt, have a few weeks off when the little ‘un comes along and then get right back on it and try to smash it again at the back end of the season.”
Next year is, of course, shaping up to be an interesting one with golf’s return to the Olympic fold. Taking place in Rio de Janeiro in August, it has forced a reshuffle of the traditional schedule, with the PGA Championship moving up a few weeks and, most contentious of all, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational now going up against the French Open at the end of June.
That move, in particular, prompted new European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley to abandon the tour’s support of that particular World Golf Championship, a decision that has prompted some discontent in various quarters. Willett, though, doesn’t see what else the new boss could have done.
“He had to make a stand,” he says. “The French Open is one of our oldest events, not to mention one of our best, and with the Ryder Cup being on that golf course in 2018, it’s only right that we support it.“
In terms of participating at the Olympics, Willett admits he is keen. “If it fits in well with how my schedule is going then I think it’d be brilliant,” he says. “I think it’d be great fun to try and win a gold medal. It’s one of them things that we’ve never had the chance to do before and I just think it’d be pretty cool.
“Plus, the whole opening ceremony stuff and everything else that goes with it would be good fun to be part of. It’d be great to have the opportunity to go there, spend a whole week or so enjoying the experience and then get down to the business of trying to win a gold medal. I figure that if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right.”
He’s not putting a medal right up there at the top of his list of goals just yet. “For me, it goes major win, Ryder Cup, Olympic medal, in that order. The thing with an Olympic medal is that it’s new to us. It’s not something we’ve ever grown up dreaming of because it was never available. Nobody that I know ever had a putting contest as a kid to win an Olympic gold. It was always, ‘Right, it’s this to win the Masters’ or ‘This to win the Open’.”
Back in the day, Willett always dreamed of taking on Tiger down the stretch. Woods was his hero and he doesn’t mind admitting it.
“It’s sad to see where he is at the moment but he’s the one reason why we started playing, training, doing this, that and the other,” he says. “Everything that we do and the way that we do it is because of Tiger.
“I know he’s done a lot of things in recent years that haven’t been especially great and they’ve been pretty well publicised but I think what’s happening to him lately is a bit of a shame. I don’t think there is any true golf fan who wants to see him fade away because of how much of an influence he has been on so many people’s careers.”
With that, it’s time for Danny to go get some sleep after the previous night’s exertions. Sleep: that’s a luxury he better not get too used to.
Danny Willett in bunkered
This interview with Danny Willett first appeared in issue 143 of bunkered (published: October 2015).