Danny Willett: "You don’t turn up to work drunk"October, 2011
He played in the same Walker Cup matches as Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson but has not blossomed as quickly as everyone expected. We asked the Yorkshireman to explain why that was
WHEN he turned professional in 2008, Rotherham-born Danny Willett was the world’s best amateur, had won several of the unpaid game’s biggest honours and was tipped by some to be the next big thing.
He’d grown up playing with the likes of Rory McIlroy and David Horsey on the British amateur circuit and, when he finished in a tie for 19th on his European Tour debut in March 2008 still as an amateur, everyone expected him to make an instant impact on tour.
After dropping out of university in Alabama (Willett said his game was no longer progressing) and returning home, he quickly turned pro aged 19 off a plus-5 handicap.
However, Willett, now 23, hasn’t quite lit up the tour as was expected. Although he has shown positive signs, racking up 15 top-10 finishes in his short time on tour and coming within a whisker of winning twice (he led at Wentworth in 2010 and also took Martin Kaymer close at the Dunhill Links last year) the youngster has not blossomed in the way as McIlroy has.
Although time is on his side, the world no.103 will hope to break into the top 50 sooner rather than later and start to fully live up to his massive potential.
Last year was your most successful yet and you finished in the top 25 on the Race to Dubai. What was the secret?
My coach Brian Walker (an England Elite Squad coach) and I have put a lot of work in both in the gym and on the course. We also scheduled the year pretty well and I got some good results. Unfortunately I got injured near the end of the season so it could and should have been a lot better.
I tore one of my intercostal [rib] muscles just after my strong finish at the Dunhill Links. I’d just had six good events so felt really positive about my game. It was still a bit iffy when I went to Dubai later in the year but I was still pleased overall with how I finished and how my season panned out.
You came incredibly close to winning the Dunhill Links. Did you feel a lot of pressure?
I did, but it’s a good feeling you should get used to. I won a few times as an amateur and it’s a feeling you can’t describe. You need to be able to take the pressure and use it to your advantage. Your heart is beating and you’re really nervous but you need to be able to use it. I love it, I wish I could have it every week.
You also led for a while at Wentworth. Does that course suit you?
I really like Wentworth. There are a few courses that you have a good feel for throughout the year and that is definitely one of them. It really suits my eye.
What do you think of the changes?
They’ve changed 8 and 18 again after last year but I liked what they did the first time. This year they’ve lowered the green on 18 about four or five feet which makes it less daunting to go for it in two so you should see more. We went for it last year two or three times so it should be do-able. It all depends on the tee shot.
Rory and Matteo definitely inspires me to be successful. If they can do it, it makes me think I can do it as well. It’s not that far out of my reach. Is life on tour a lot easier in the second year?
Yes. I’m in my third year now and it’s getting easier all the time. You get used to all the lads and the travelling; you find out which hotels are best to stay in and how to keep yourself fresh.
What was it like when you first joined the European Tour?
It’s really difficult. You get to travel quite a bit as an amateur but it’s nowhere near as much as when you turn professional. As an amateur I travelled for a week or two then had a month off, but now I could be away for six weeks at a time and it’s hard on your body.
Was the transition to the pro ranks harder than you expected?
No, it wasn’t that hard. Matteo [Manassero] and Rory [McIlroy] have shown that you can do it young and the only reason any of us are out here is because we’re good enough to play on the European Tour. It wasn’t that difficult, I just think it’s a case of getting used to playing week-in, week-out and getting accustomed to the places you play and visit.
What is it like seeing players who you grew up competing against having so much success?
It definitely inspires me to be successful. If they can do it, it makes me think I can do it as well. It’s not that far out of my reach.
Are you surprised at how quickly Rory has flourished?
Not at all. When you look at his talent it’s not surprising one bit – he’s been amazing since he was 14.
Matteo [Manassero] is the same. Hopefully I have that talent too, I just think it takes some players a bit longer to get used to the surroundings. Obviously those two guys have made it look really easy but it has taken a bit longer for me. It’s just a matter of time.
Did you watch McIlroy’s final round in the Masters?
I did. It will have been tough to take but there were so many positives. Tee to green he played near perfect for the first three days and could have had a 10 or 12-shot lead going into the final day.
He just let a few get away from him. Obviously he struggled a bit on the final day and guys came at him but he bounced back in great style in Malaysia. It was brilliant to play so well the week after.
Do people underestimate how much of an achievement it is for Rory to be where he is?
A lot of guys don’t realise how hard it is to get high up in the world rankings. Rory is now comfortable in the top 10 and that is amazing. I’ve had 15 top 10s in two and a half years and I’ve just fallen out of the top 100, so it takes a lot to get up there. You need a couple of good bursts to get in the top 50 and then you get into the Majors and it does become a bit easier.
You played in your first Major last year – the US PGA. What was that like?
It was good fun, but once you’re there you want to be there every year. Luckily I’m in the Open already this year so that’s going to be good. Unfortunately I missed out on the Masters but hopefully I can qualify for the US Open.
What is your US Open plan?
As I’m not in the top 50 I have to qualify at Walton Heath, which is just after Wentworth. There’s only about seven spots for 150 guys so it’s going to be tough but I’m confident. Pretty much everyone outside the top 50 who isn’t exempt will be there so it will be tough but I’ve played Walton Heath a few times and like it. I won the South of England [by 10 shots] there so I’m positive.
Your game seems to suit US courses. Is it tempting to join the PGA Tour?
Tempting, but not that tempting. If you’re going to do it you get into the top 50 and play the WGCs and the Majors. Then perhaps play five or six other events. That’s all I’d do as I wouldn’t want to base myself over there. Not now or ever. Europe is getting stronger all the time – we have the world’s top three – there’s no reason to move.
Do you aim to be in the top 50 by the end of the year?
I’d love to do that. First and foremost it would make my schedule a lot easier and would also get me into the Majors. If it happens, it’s great but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, I’ll just keep working hard and see where I get to. The ultimate goal is No 1.
What is holding you back?
My putting. It’s been my weakness for a year or two now and it’s what I’m working on improving. I just need to keep plugging away.
Your power is your biggest asset, isn’t it…
Yes. I just try get the ball down there as far as I can. Luckily I’m not as bad accuracy-wise as some of the longer hitters so it’s one of my strengths. I work hard in the gym to keep it going a long way.
Your dad is a vicar. How has that affected your personality?
Well I’ve always been a naturally giddy and excitable lad and I’m really enthusiastic about what I do. I’ve been brought up really well and the religious side has had a positive effect. I am religious but I don’t really go [to church] as I am travelling most weeks.
Having three brothers has meant you always want to win too!
Is the party lifestyle tempting?
No. As a professional you need to realise what you want from the game and, as good as a lifestyle as it is, you’re still working and you don’t turn up to work drunk. I enjoy myself on time off but it’s strictly hard work in the season.
Did you enjoy the Walker Cup?
The Walker Cup is just a token at the end of an amateur career in my eyes, although a very good one, and it doesn’t really help develop you. The EGU, however, played a massive part. They are excellent. I’ve been with my coach Graham since I was 15 and we have a fantastic relationship.