It has taken Sheffield steel to get Danny Willett through a tough few months, the low point of which was seeing a Ryder Cup debut being ruined by some ill-timed and very stupid comments about American golf fans by his brother.
There have been times, in fact, where he has been left feeling as though he’s gone from hero to zero since becoming Masters champion a year ago. His game still seems miles away from allowing the 29-year-old to make a decent defence in the season’s opening major. Even so, this is a week Willett is going to enjoy.
“I can’t think of a more amazing week to defend,” said the Yorkshireman, who may have had the door opened for him by Jordan Spieth running up a quadruple-bogey 7 at the 12th in the final round last year but, at the same time, played the closing few holes brilliantly to grab his big opportunity with both hands. “I’m going to go on the Saturday before and play nine holes on my own and kind of soak it up and drive down Magnolia Lane on my own. I’m pretty sure that as I get even within the area of Augusta, there’s going to be a big Cheshire [cat’s] smile on my face.”
Rightly so, too, because, no matter what lies ahead in the rest of his career, Willett can feel proud of becoming the first Englishman to claim a Green Jacket since Nick Faldo chalked up the last of his three triumphs exactly 20 years earlier. Like Faldo, Willett has earned privileges that will last for a lifetime. “It’s going to be an amazing feeling to be able to go back there and know that, for evermore, my name is in history at that golf club, that I’m part of the Augusta family and enjoy every experience when I go back there,” he added.
It’s been rumoured that Willett is set to have toad in the hole, which, of course, consists of sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter, on his menu at the traditional Champions’ Dinner on Tuesday. It’s then that the host will realise the full magnitude of the feat he pulled off a year ago. “You’re going to be in a room there with guys that have slipped on the Green Jacket,” he said, excitedly. “All in all, it’s going to be a magical place to go back to. Whenever you defend a golf tournament, it’s great, but to be able to go back to Augusta National and defend your first major is going to be something pretty special.”
He’s worn his Green Jacket with pride. It’s adorned places such as Rotherham Golf Club and the Royal Box at Wimbledon. “I went to do the Wee Willetts presentation a couple of months ago back home in Rotherham and seeing the smile on the kids’ faces when someone walked in with a jacket that you’ve seen on TV and you know how special that jacket is was pretty special,” he admitted. “On a different note, to be able to wear it in the Royal Box at such a prestigious place as Wimbledon was pretty cool.”
As was receiving a flood of messages congratulating him on becoming Masters champion. “We had some lovely letters from Mr Player, Mr Nicklaus, Mr Palmer, John Jacobs, Woosie, Faldo, Sandy Lyle,” he said, smiling. “They are the kind of things when you’re a kid that you don’t realise, you don’t expect.”
Unfortunately – and he’s certainly not alone in experiencing this after becoming a first-time major winner – Willett’s form as the Green Jacket holder has been pretty poor. To the extent, in fact, that the defending champion is heading into this week in the shadow of younger compatriots such as Matt Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton as England send a record 11 players into battle.
“If you’re gauging every week compared to what I achieved last year, every week is going to be a failure,” Willett pointed out. “You see yourself win one of the best golf tournaments in the world. You feel like you should be able to do that every week, but, unfortunately, this isn’t a game that you can do that. You look at Tiger [Woods] at the height of his career, I think he was on like a 35 per cent win record in his decade of dominance, and even that’s unheard of.
“But getting my confidence back has been a bit tricky. We didn’t play great toward the back end of last season, but I think a lot of it was because we didn’t really get the time off in the middle of the year we were hoping for. We ended up playing about 32 events last year with a lot of traveling and a lot of commitments. If you throw a baby in the mix [son Zachariah was born just before he travelled out to Georgia last year], there’s not a great deal of time off in there to relax and have some more downtime and chill out.
“However, the game is not far away. We just need to now get on a bit of a stretch. We’re playing the events we want to play now this year and we’ve cut the schedule down and we’re not playing too many in the hope that every time we pitch up we can be ready to go play. If that happens, great. If that doesn’t happen, we’re still going to keep working hard and try to get back to where we want to get to.”
Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, is heading into the Masters bidding to make it four wins in a row. Rory McIlroy, of course, has the added incentive of chasing a win that would complete the career Grand Slam. As for Spieth, he’ll be a man on a mission after letting a second victory slip from his grasp 12 months ago.
“Defending is going to be tough,” said Willett. “The golf that some of the guys are playing at the moment around the world is unbelievable. I’m obviously going to have to up my game from where it has been a little bit recently, and hope that I can compete.”