It’s one thing reaching a pinnacle in sport, but staying there is another thing altogether. Just ask Danny Willett about the challenge he’s faced since becoming Masters champion – only the second Englishman to claim that honour – 12 months ago.
“I tried to make a pact to myself not to, but it’s difficult,” said the Yorkshireman in reply to being asked if his poor form since then had been down to the extra pressure that comes with being a major champion, especially a first-timer.
“You’ve achieved the greatest height in your game. You have got to the pinnacle. You’ve climbed Everest and you’ve put your flag in. Unfortunately, you’ve got to either climb down or stay up there, and it’s incredibly difficult to stay up there all the time.”
Ninth after his triumph a year ago and sitting inside the top 10 for most of last season, the 28-year-old has slipped to 17th in the world rankings. His best finish as Masters champion was second place in the Italian Open last September.
“I think the last 12 months has made me a little more impatient,” said Willett, smiling. “Achieving what I did last year and performing under pressure how I did on Sunday [covering the last six holes in three-under as he carded a flawless 67 to finish three shots ahead of his compatriot, Lee Westwood, and defending champion Jordan Spieth], you come away and if you don’t do that every time, you get a bit annoyed.
“You feel like you should be able to. You’ve done it once, so why can’t you do it every time you play? That’s where the game jumps up and bites you. It’s not that easy. You can’t just do it week‑in and week‑out. There’s a few men that have been able to do it over the years, but they are few and far between.”
Enjoyable as though the last year has been, you sense that Willett almost needs to get this week out of the way before he can focus totally on trying to get back to playing his best golf. He’s not the first player to struggle after being thrust into the spotlight as a major winner and won’t be the last.
“The last 12 months has been somewhat of a rollercoaster within life and golf,” he admitted. “There’s been some up‑and‑downs, but, you know, to be Masters champion for 12 months has been amazing. To be able to take the Green Jacket to places and to wear it with pride and for people to see it and see the expression on people’s faces when they see one in the flesh, is something special to see.
“It’s going to be a shame, potentially, to give it back on Sunday. But just to have it has been amazing. It would be incredible to be able to do it again sometime.
“We’re still working hard and there is that little bit of inevitability there sooner or later you have to kind of crack in and get back to where you’ve been. Unfortunately, it’s not kind of dropped into place yet, but I’m still only 29 years old and I’ve got a long career.”
At the very least, Willett deserves a decent defence and perhaps those magical memories from last year can help him deliver that. Tough as the last 12 months may have been, the Tyke has, to his credit, retained a sense of humour. Asked to complete the phrase: Being Masters champion is better than… he replied: “My wife’s here, could get in trouble!”