Danny Willett: The making of a Masters champion

Golf News

He grew up in inner-city Sheffield. Now he owns a Green Jacket. We trace Danny Willett’s remarkable journey to the top by asking the man himself and those who know him best

A week after winning the Masters, Willett was back at his club – Rotherham. We asked him about the role it has played in his life.

“Rotherham Golf Club have been massive. They have always had a fantastic junior section. Lol Morgan (junior organiser) was always the leader in that. He worked for Sheffield Union of Golf Clubs for a massive amount of time and helped nurture young talent around South Yorkshire. Luckily enough for me, I was able to join here when I was younger and play with a lot of fantastic golfers.

“We were all kind of pushing each other on to get better and play well. Some of them are still playing, and playing really well, and some of them have stopped playing. I was able to keep playing and to be where I am.

“I have got a lot of friends here. A lot of close friends and I am able to still come back now, have a drink in the bar, just be one of the lads again and go out and have a knock.

“I had to work hard. There were already a couple of lads here who were a lot better than me. I just kept working hard and doing my thing and, slowly, I progressed and took over a little bit.

“Graham Walker was a coach of mine for a long, long time – through Sheffield days, Yorkshire days and England days. It was 10+ years with Graham of working hard. He was a massive father figure to me, to help me through a lot of tough and good situations and work really hard.

“Family and friends have helped me along the way and kept me grounded, kept me normal, kept a reality check and everything. All of that stuff helps.

“You don’t really have a childhood, between 14 and 20, I guess. They are really crucial years in golf development. You are here after school, working, you have got to try and fit in doing your homework with practising for a few hours.

“At weekends, you are in the medals. You are in the junior opens. Your mum and dad are driving you up and down the country to play in these different things and you don’t just get to go and play out when you are a kid and do that stuff.

“You have got to put the hours in and, if you are going to go to college in America, or play for England, you are then away for a few months of the year training with them – in Spain or in Australia. You look back now and, yeah, I didn’t get to go and ride my bike as much as other kids but I would much rather be sat here now wearing a Green Jacket.

“The (back) injury was obviously a massive setback and that halted things for a couple of years, which was frustrating. Through that, you had to stay patient and know that your team around you was the best it could be and that you kept working hard. It was tough at the time because I had been playing with guys and when I had my injury I had to stop and not play for six to eight months. “You see them doing really well and you are thinking ‘I should really be there and competing’.

“But you stay patient enough, you keep working hard, and it has now got back to where I have been really able to push it and progress really nicely over the last 18 months to two years.”

The childhood coach – Pete Ball

Danny Willett at Augusta

Pete is a PGA professional now based at Barlborough Links and Moorview. He was Willett’s first coach, working with him, and thousands of other youngsters from inner-city Sheffield, at municipal Birley Wood.

“Danny first came to Birley at the age of 11 with his school. I think he’d hit some balls before he came to me but not very many so we were starting from scratch.

“He progressed to the after-schools class and then he started coming every night.

“We built it from there. And he just got better and better – but not meteorically. Danny and James and Carl worked harder than any of the others. Carl Shepherd and Danny were in the same class, which helps. Sometimes you get clusters of kids. There was a lot of buddy learning going on. They stood out from the rest. They ended up playing for England schoolboys.

“Danny had slightly more going for him than most but not much. It’s a tough area where his father worked. Hats off to him for working around there.

“It’s the steel inside them. They’ve had to fight for what they want. And that’s what makes them very hard
people. Very determined people. What do they say – a hungry fighter is a dangerous fighter.

“When he got to 15 or 16, we needed another coach. I said to him as I do with all the kids: ‘You’re 16 years of age, I’ve done the best I can but you need a full-time coach now and I’m not going to be your full-time coach.’

“My idea with all my players is to get them to 16 and then encourage them to leave the nest. They’ve got to make that flight on their own. Not with me. My job’s done.

“We discussed who Danny would like to work with as a full-time coach, he said Graham Walker. I said, great choice. He’d been doing a bit with him at county level. I said that would be perfect for me, a good fit, he knows my coaching methods and he’s an expert technical coach, which I’m not.

“He was scratch or plus one at that stage. But he was driven. A couple of years later, he came back from Jacksonville. He didn’t want to go back to college, he wanted to go to tour school.

“We had an interesting conversation at that stage. My idea was finishing his degree but his idea was going to win tour school. I tried to explain it wasn’t that simple but he said it would be. I knew that fixed mindset was there.

“On the last day of the Masters, I was away from home. I got a phone call from my son. He said: “Danny’s about to win the Masters.”

“So I put the TV on and he was on the 16th.

“I wasn’t nervous. I knew he’d finish it. That was great caddying on the 16th giving him an 8 iron from 183, realising he was hyper and he’s a powerful lad.

Danny Willet reads a putt during his final Masters round

“When he hit that chip on the 17th, I knew he’d do it. Because we’d practised that over the years at Birley and Graham would have worked very hard with him on his short game. That chip was what sealed it for me. To get up and down from there was incredible. That was very, very easy to take five or six from.

“I was very proud of the lad. What he’s done was incredible. It wasn’t the one I thought he’d win. I thought he’d win the Open or the PGA first. Never occurred to me he’d win the Masters.

“Very few people ever win it. Not that he didn’t have the talent. But there are very few people who win the Masters.

“He’ll go out to win everything he can now. That hunger isn’t going to go away. His mindset is that if he’s won one then he wants to win another. He wants to be the world No 1.
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“I remember we were talking once when he was world amateur No 2. He said you told me never to speak to you until I’m world amateur No 1. That’s his mindset. And he told me off for saying that he’d done well to get to No 2. So you think he’s going to be happy until he’s world No 1? Absolutely not. He’s got his sights fixed on it.

“It’s a long way from Birley to Augusta. I smile when I think about it – playing a windswept muni in the middle of winter to playing Augusta. That’s a huge journey that very few could even dream that could happen let alone let it happen.”

The official – Jonathan Plaxton

Danny Willett at the Scottish Open

The former England captain and current Yorkshire president says Willett’s determination always stood out.

“In 2007 when I became England captain Danny had complete and total dedication and a great work ethic. He had that pedigree to get to the absolute top. He was so demanding of the coaches and everyone involved in supporting him.

“When he was going up the ladder, I wouldn’t say it was easy but he had so much energy. If you had been asked
to pick a winner, it would be Danny.

“He’s in the world top 10 now and I am sure he will look to be world No 1 but, one thing I would say, is that he has got his priorities right.

“I always think back to 2007, when he was an automatic pick for the European Team Championships. He let us know at an early stage that he wouldn’t be able to go because he was attending his brother’s wedding.

“He has always had his priorities around family.”

The club stalwart – Chris Allen

Danny Willett celebrates Masters win

Rotherham’s chairman remembers the day his fourball were pipped at the post in ‘curry night’.

“It’s a 12-hole shotgun start and we have a curry afterwards. It’s a tenner in – six or seven pounds for the curry and the rest is in the pot. The one time when our little group looked like we had a chance of winning, unfortunately we were pipped by Danny and his group. The story they told was they were playing the 4th, which is a long par 5 with a ditch that runs down the left-hand side – and Danny had driven in there off the tee.

“He decided to play out of it. Most people wouldn’t dream of playing out of it, they would be dropping either side. But he decided to play out of it – bear in mind it is a par 5 – and he just hit it stiff, straight out of the hazard. What can you do? We didn’t win and we’ve never been close since.

“I recall, more than once, turning up here in the pouring rain on a Saturday morning. We’ve decided we wouldn’t go out until it eased off. We’ve sat and had a coffee and Danny was outside practising chipping.

“We’d think ‘it’s still hammering it down, we’ll have another cup of coffee’. He’s still out there. Then we’d think ‘I don’t think we are going to get a game today, we’ll have a beer’.

“We’ve been there several hours, and Danny is still out there. We are off, driving up the drive, and he is still out there practising.”

The Walker Cup team-mate – Nigel Edwards

Dannt Willett at the Walker Cup

How England Golf’s performance director, Nigel played alongside Danny in the 2007 Walker Cup before going on to captain GB&I’s team three times.

“I always think of Danny’s work ethic and these three examples.

“I wasn’t driving the ball great going into County Down in the 2007 Walker Cup and on the Tuesday morning I went to the practice area to sort it out. I got there at 6.15am and Danny was already there, we were teeing off at about 10.

“Then there was the Bonallack Trophy and Danny played in the same team with Chris Wood and it struck me how well prepared the pair of them were. Danny had his diary with all his lessons for the year mapped out.

“Finally, in 2013, he’d played in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill and flew overnight home. We were playing the Home Internationals at Ganton and he was still working with Graham Walker. It was the Monday evening and he came and spoke to me to see if he could have an hour with Graham.

“Of course he could and there was no need to ask me but it was just out of courtesy. He had just landed and he wanted to go and have a lesson after finishing 40th at the PGA.

“At Augusta he looked like he was enjoying it but he looked like that on the other occasions he won and when you look back at those maybe the Masters wasn’t a surprise.

“On the putt on 16 he looked very much in the moment, he stuck to his process to do what he could to play well. On the last tee his caddy said to start again, he writes a note in his yardage book which focused his mind and that got him back in his process again.

“It was great to see someone take their chance – he went and won it.”

The club pro – Gregg Roberts

Danny Willett signs autographs

Rotherham’s professional professional says the club is a haven for the Masters champion when he comes home between tournaments.

“This is where Danny comes to be with his pals, to be left alone and play his golf, and just be a normal member.

“The golf club are quite conscious of the fact that we want to take advantage but not in a way that exploits Danny in any way.

“It’s just trying to find that balance now. Every now and again, especially if he has just had a win, some people will go up to him and shake his hand.

“Invariably, he will be completely left alone – go into the bar and have a drink – and no-one hassles him, no-one says anything to him.

“They will say hello to him as he is walking past but that’s pretty much it. There is no other real hassle for him.”

The Walker Cup partner – Jamie Moul

Danny Willett is mobbed after Masters win

Moul, from Stoke-by-Nayland, played foursomes twice alongside Willett in the Walker Cup and was ranked the amateur world No 1.

“Dan was probably quite late into the frame for the Walker Cup. Midway through the 2007 season he burst onto the scene winning the South of England and English Amateur.

“We only really played together in the squad practices and then a lot of practice rounds.

“He was always the same and pretty bouncy whereas I am quite calm on the course, so I could calm him down and he could bring me up a little bit.

“We played pretty well the first day, Webb Simpson holed from off the green for a half.

“We were pretty chatty and we would talk through all of the shots, how you see him is how he was and he hasn’t changed since.

“We played a lot of the same tournaments in 2012 and he was one of the hardest workers.

“He was always around the short-game area doing drills which was a big thing of Graham Walker.

“Danny was always really dedicated in doing all the drills and tests.

“I did think he was capable of winning a Major but I didn’t expect it just yet.

“His form the last year or so has been great but I don’t think you would have expected him to win at Augusta.

“But he is the kind of personality that once he got a sniff he would have a great chance and he wouldn’t shy away from anything.”

The childhood friend – Ashley Lerigo

Danny Willett is presented the Masters green jacket

The fellow junior says he always thought Willett would bag a Major – but not the Masters.

“I’ve known Danny for the best part of 14 years. We started off with junior golf and when we were 15 or 16 we played a bit against each other. We’ve played a lot more in the last five or six years. I’ve lost count. This is one of those things that you dream of as a kid and when one of your mates wins it, it is like you’ve done it as well in a way.

“I’m really happy for him. He deserves everything he gets. It’s the one I didn’t think he’d win first. I always thought he would have a good chance but I always thought the Open would be the one he would win because links courses suit his game.

“He has done it now and it can only just give him the confidence to go on and win more and more. I hope it is one of many.

“He was the one who put the work in and he thoroughly deserves everything he has got from it.”

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