Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn welcomed the return of the “Danny Willett of old” after witnessing the former Masters champion’s heartening revival at first hand in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
Willett reached a career-high of ninth in the world after claiming his first major title at Augusta National in 2016, but has slumped to 442nd in the rankings after suffering numerous injuries and a loss of form.
A missed cut in last week’s French Open was his ninth in 12 events this season, but the 30-year-old from Sheffield added a second round of 70 to his opening 68 at Ballyliffin to lie just two shots off the halfway lead shared by Ryan Fox, Matthieu Pavon and Erik van Rooyen in the £5.3 million event.
Sweden’s Joakim Lagergren is a shot off the lead on seven under, with Willett joined on six under by compatriot Sam Horsfield and South African Zander Lombard.
Lee Westwood, who will be one of Bjorn’s vice-captains in Paris in September, is a shot further back on five under, Russell Knox is at four under, while tournament host Rory McIlroy is seven off the pace after a disappointing 73. “It’s been tough to see somebody that good struggle for that amount of time but today was the Danny Willett of old and it’s nice to see,” said Bjorn, pictured below, who carded a 71 to finish level par.
“When you’re in that situation the Ryder Cup and all those things are so far from your mind, you’re working on a project that goes from day to day. Having two days like this is important, now comes the hard part of going into the next two and enjoying it because you’ve done all the hard work to get back to here.”
Willett is relieved to finally be injury free after back and shoulder problems, while he also struggled with a torn meniscus in his knee during the Italian Open, where he finished eighth, which almost forced him to withdraw from the US Open.
And although a late tee time today will mean missing England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden, that might not be a bad thing given that at least one member of his family will be supporting the opposition. “We’ll have to get the television crew to keep us updated, but my mum is Swedish so she’ll be cheering for them,” Willett joked.
“It’s nice to come out and hit the shots that you can see in practise and actually perform still under pressure when the clubs are in your hand and you’re trying to obviously improve what you’re doing. It’s been a tough 18 months but I’m very happy to be playing nicely.”
Knox led the Scottish challenge after adding a 69 to his opening 71. Scott Jamieson (one under), Marc Warren and Richie Ramsay (level), and David Drysdale (one over) also made the cut but Connor Syme, Bradley Neil and Stephen Gallacher all fell short. Home favourite Padraig Harrington, who was a shot off the lead after a first round of 68, crashed out after taking ten shots more yesterday.