As a clearer picture finally unravelled after players had completed rounds at all three venues, Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, holds a two-shot lead, having moved to 14-under-par on the back of a bogey-free 66 at St Andrews.
After fellow Englishman Daniel Gavins finished bogey, double-bogey, double bogey at Kingsbarns to go from being out in front to four behind, the chase heading into the final circuit on the Old Course is being led by two of Willett’s compatriots, two-time winner Tyrrell Hatton and Richard Bland, along with Irish duo Shane Lowry and John Murphy.
Hatton, in particular, looks a big threat given his stellar record in this event, having been on course to make it three title triumphs in a row when he held a five-shot lead in the final round in 2018 only to blow up on the back nine. “Not that I still remember it,” said the world No 18, smiling, “but it would be nice to make up for when I messed up that chance.”
However, Willett finished second in this event in 2010 before tying for fifth two years later and he’s also developed a nice habit of landing wins in big events, as evidenced by both the DP World Tour Championship and BMW PGA Championship having fallen to him in addition to that Green Jacket.
On a dreich day, Willett played the final few holes in the worst of the rain. Having earlier picked up shots at the second, fifth, seventh, 10th and 13th, the 33-year-old was delighted to cover the closing stretch in one-under thanks to a birdie to finish.
“As soon as you get on the 12th tee, you know you've got pretty tough conditions coming straight into the wind on the last six holes,” he said. “I really had a go on them the last six and gained a lot of shots coming in doing that.”
Willett might not actually have been here for the 20th edition. “I entered this event as Jimmy (Dunne, his amateur partner) said to me back in April at Augusta he fancied playing for the first time,” said Willett. “I said ‘chalk’ me down and he’s having a great week, as well.”
Dunne, a big cheese at Seminole in Florida, where the Walker Cup was held this year, had bounded on to the practice range at St Andrews on Tuesday as though he meant business this week and that confidence has been vindicated so far.
The duo share the lead in the team event on 27-under with Scot Ewen Ferguson and his partner, Vamps lead vocalist Brad Simpson, and Willett is feeling equally excited about the opportunity to repeat that success five years ago but this time with Dunne.
“He’s good pals with a lot of guys playing and this is what the week is about,” said the Yorkshireman of his partner on this occasion. “It’s just a good fun week. At this time of the year, it is what a lot of people need.”
Seven-time European Tour winner Willett split with Smart just over a year after winning at Augusta National, but the pair are both enjoying being reunited. “We’ve done pretty well together and it’s worked well,” said Willett of the tried-and-tested partnership. “We’re just trying to get the game back to where we want it to be.”
Hatton, who had started the day with a one-shot lead, looked in the mood to turn the title race into another procession as he reeled off four birdies in a row from the second at St Andrews only to have the wind taken out of his sails by three bogeys on the spin on the inward journey.
“I just hit a couple of loose shots, and felt like I just lost all momentum, to be honest,” the 29-year-old said afterwards of having to settle for a 71. “But we live to fight another day.”
Bland, who landed his breakthrough win on the circuit at the 478th attempt in the British Masters in May, made his move with a best-of-the-day eight-under 64 at St Andrews.
"That’s by far the lowest score I’ve had round here in probably the worst conditions,” said the 48-year-old. “The Old Course is somewhere I've struggled to get my head round. I prefer Carnoustie.
"But it's always a joy to play at the Home of Golf and I'm fortunate I'll be back here next year for The Open, which is a bucket list thing for me. I don’t think your career would be complete without playing an Open at St Andrews and I'm glad I've pretty much secured that.”
Murphy, who won the 2018 St Andrews Links Trophy as an amateur, is excelling in just his third European Tour event after turning pro in June, while Lowry is bidding to overcome “fatigue” from last week’s Ryder Cup in his bid to land the title.
“It's still a big tournament in its own right, and I’m a competitive person,” said the 2019 Open champion. “I’ve managed to play some nice golf over the last three days, I'm in a nice position now going into tomorrow, and I look forward to it.”
As well as being in contention for the team title, Ferguson is the leading Scot in the individual event, sitting joint-ninth on nine-under after a 69 at Kingsbarns. “I two-putted the last, so I'm feeling a little bit angry about that,” said the 25-year-old Glaswegian. “But, overall, I'm feeling fantastic. My game is in a really good place.”
Richie Ramsay also progressed comfortably on seven-under, with Calum Hill (four-under), Grant Forrest (three-under), David Drysdale (three-under) and 2004 winner Stephen Gallacher (two-under) also among the top 60 and ties to progress to the final round.