The dark days are overNovember 19, 2018 The Scoop
From the highest of highs to rock bottom. It's been a long and emotional journey for Danny Willett, writes Mark Townsend
Imagine being Danny Willett. Imagine winning The Masters with a final-round 67, with no bogeys, and playing one of the best chip shots at Augusta National with Jordan Spieth, Lee Westwood, JB Holmes, Paul Casey and Dustin Johnson breathing down your neck – and then being written off within 12 months as a bit of a one-hit wonder.
Forget all the platitudes of being a grinder and being regarded as someone who did it all through hard work and bloody-mindedness, Willett had now got lucky, the beneficiary of a Spieth meltdown. Now it was all a bit too much for him to live up to the hype of not only being a major winner but a Masters champion.
Far closer to the truth is that Willett has been dogged with injuries throughout his career, his back has been a constant struggle since Augusta and this led to periods of waking up in pain, taking painkillers, having physio just to be able to play, playing and then more post-round physio. This time last year his season has already been brought to a premature end with a damaged rotator cuff in his left shoulder.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 18, 2018
And so to 2018. There had been a break of 11 weeks with the shoulder problem but he arrived in Abu Dhabi where we sat down with him full of hope, not for some improved form, but just to play healthy. He was a few months into a new relationship with coach Sean Foley and the Canadian’s positivity seemed to be rubbing off.
“When I first sat down with him we were talking long term and about trying to be fit and healthy for the next 20 years. Whether the moves are perfected within six months or six years the focus is to stay healthy and get better in the long term. His charisma and personality actually help me to trust all of that and relax a bit. Golf is a game and you take it as it comes,” Willett told us in January.
Two days later he was forced to withdraw. When his season did get going he probably wished that it hadn’t. His first nine starts brought finishes of MC-MC-MC-T29-WD-MC-MC-MC-MC – the one finish coming at the Tshwane Open.
Come the final blank weekend at Wentworth he was now the 462nd best player in the world. The archived rankings don’t even go that far down to give you an idea of how far Willett had sunk, but players who have never won on the Web.com were inside the top 300.
The new moves, which were being put into place to take a lot of the stress off the shoulder and back which included getting off the balls of his feet and having more pelvis and hip rotation, were, to put it lightly, yet to bed in.
They were there purely for endurance rather than swing related.
“The moves felt horrendous and the ball flight was horrendous but I wasn’t in pain.”
And then the game started to come together, there was an 8th in Italy and a 6th in Ireland, Willett was turning it on in the big ones.
Come Carnoustie Willett was beginning to sound a few cautious words of optimism.
“I’m pretty hopeful we’ll never be in as dark as play as we were. But by the same token, this is a strange old game. You get ebbs and flows and hit a low point, but I’ve really enjoyed golf the last six, seven weeks. Even getting the clubs out and going to play at home without having to do two hours of warm-up and go see the physio.”
Willett was now able to extend his practice sessions little by little and it was all beginning to pay off. There was a concerted push just to make it to Dubai and a third top 10 of the season in Turkey got him a place in the end-of-season field, somewhere that had generally been a given for the bulk of his career.
Every aspect of this victory is impressive, to get his body and swing to anywhere near this point within 15 months of beginning his work with Foley as well as teaming up with strength and conditioning coach Kevin Duffy is incredible enough. Since the Augusta breakthrough Willett has also changed his caddie and management group with the only constant being his putting coach Paul Hurrion.
But to have the mental strength, 953 days after the previous win in Georgia, takes something pretty special. All the questions of the past two years of where his game’s gone, the dark days of not even wanting to play in the Tour Championship in Dubai in 2016 even though he had a chance of winning it, a 0-3 Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine and most observers not giving you a chance. Look at Lee Westwood last week in South Africa, all that takes its toll.
"It's been tough…"
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 18, 2018
This was vintage Willett – ballsy and bouncy, and seemingly loving it at the business end of things. What a tremendous asset to have in your locker.
“The one thing that you can’t teach is how you cope under pressure down the stretch. That just comes naturally to some people.
“Fortunately I feel like we are relatively good in certain situations when I’m competent in what I’m doing. When you’re not competent and you’re not playing well, it’s a tricky one to say, yeah, I’m going to handle it well. You draw on a lot of things.
“You really think of shots I hit around Augusta, and how you felt there, hands were shaking, how your nerves were, holing a few of them little slippery six-footers, and we had a few of them.”