Light at last for Danny Willett after the long dark days

Danny Willett on the 2nd hole during day one of the 147th Open Championship. Picture: Kenny Smith/SNS
Danny Willett on the 2nd hole during day one of the 147th Open Championship. Picture: Kenny Smith/SNS
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The dark days of the past year offered Danny Willett little hope. Perhaps, surprisingly, they also failed to serve up a greater sense of perspective.

He knows that they probably should have but, now that he is edging back towards his best, he is too focused on perfection to be soothed by any such frame of reference.

“Yeah, perspective is good, but you still get annoyed. You still want to make everything and do everything. As perfect as we try to be, we should remember the times that were terrible and go, ‘well, that’s not too bad’. Unfortunately, we’re not like that. We just keep trying to move forward and keep trying to strive for better things.”

Having spent well over a year battling a chronic back problem and dwindling belief, the former Masters champion had to deal with missed cuts and a diet of painkillers and disappointments, so, bogeying a few holes around Carnoustie should have been more palatable in the grand scheme of things.

This was a guy who describes the dark days as “pitch black” and has admitted that he toyed with hobbling away from the sport that had shown him the stars, before switching them off.

To contend with the debilitating back condition, he had to deconstruct and then rebuild his golf swing and, although it has been a torturous transition, under the watchful guidance of Justin Rose’ coach Sean Foley, he is slowly piecing his game back together.

“Sean’s been a massive help. Not only his knowledge of the golf swing, but how we’ve gone about doing it to be free of a lot of the pain I was in, and just his demeanour as a person. He’s a very charismatic guy, very upbeat, and I think, with where I was, I really needed that. So, yeah, we often have little jokes about where we were.”

Of the six majors played since the start of 2017, Willett has made the cut just once, when he finished 21 shots behind winner Jordan Speith at last year’s Open, but he is more positive about his prospects at Carnoustie this week.

“We’ve come a good way. In terms of how I was mentally and personally and physically. So, yeah, it’s been a pretty good 11 months work.”

Getting back to his best, he is still taking it “day by day” but, one of the early starters on the Angus links yesterday, he was not far away from shooting a score that could have had him sitting at the top of the leaderboard rather than tucked in a few shots behind, on a score of two-under.

“It’s definitely nice to be stood here after shooting a relatively stress-free 69. It’s a number in the 60s and we’ve had a few of those in the past few couple months, which has been really nice.”

Bogeys on the first and two more to wrap up the round, he made some inroads in between.

“I made a silly mistake down the first but played some real solid golf for the middle of 15. And even into 17, it wasn’t too bad of a second shot, it just drifted a little bit and I had a silly missed putt. I had a lot of 12, 15 footers as well that just slid by. So it could have been a really nice score.”