Willett overcoming obstacles to obtain success
May 06, 2015
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
- Danny Willett ranks ninth on TOUR in total driving. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Editor's note: Danny Willett won the 2016 Masters. Here's a feature from 2015 on his rise up the ranks.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The first time Rory McIlroy met Danny Willett was when the two played against one another at the 2007 British Amateur. Willett, largely unknown at the time, was 5 under after six holes and went on to beat the rising star McIlroy 2 and 1.
“He was impressive,” McIlroy remembers eight years later.
Lofty praise from the No. 1 player in the world, but McIlroy should know. The two were also teammates on the Walker Cup that year and their paths nearly crossed again last week in San Francisco.
Willett beat, among others, Lee Westwood, Patrick Reed and Ryan Moore before losing in the semifinals of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play. He also beat Jim Furyk in the consolation match to earn enough FedExCup points to take up Special Temporary Membership on the PGA TOUR.
By doing so, Willett is eligible for unlimited sponsor exemptions for the remainder of the 2014-15 season as he attempts to secure a TOUR card. He needs to finish in the top 125 in the FedExCup standings to do so.
“It’s where everyone wants to play,” Willett said of the TOUR. “It’s an incredible tour.”
And one Willett hopes to stay on, though it’s not cut and dry for the 27-year-old Englishman, who will have to balance bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic in order to do so.
Major championships and WGCs count toward both the European Tour and the PGA TOUR. But Willett will also look to add other events in the U.S., where he can -- the FedEx St. Jude Classic the week before the U.S. Open possibly being one.
“It’s good decisions that you have to make, but it’s a tricky one,” said Willett, who is playing in his first PLAYERS Championship this week. “You’ve got Ryder Cup points, world ranking points, Race to Dubai points. I have to work out the best schedule possible, but it’s a long way to keep going back and forth.”
Willett might not yet be a household name in the U.S., but like others from that 2007 Walker Cup has found success at the professional level.
Born in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, Willett’s mother was a math teach and his father a preacher. He spent two years at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, where he was the 2006 Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and won medalist honors at the conference tournament in 2007, but didn’t rise to prominence on the national golf scene until his victory over McIlroy.
Willett went on to win the English Amateur at Royal St. George’s and at Royal Country Down halved two matches for Europe in its Walker Cup loss. By the following March, Willett was the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world and two months later turned pro.
He earned his European Tour card for the 2009 season through qualifying school and ended the year 58th in the Race to Dubai with eight top 10s. He continued to play well the next two years and in 2012 earned his first victory at the BMW International Open in Cologne, where he beat Marcus Fraseron on the fourth extra hole of a sudden-death playoff.
In that victory, he played a delicate chip from the rough behind the green to set up a tap-in par. It was the kind of grit he would continue to display in his rise up the world rankings and last week in San Francisco.
“He hit the ball really well,” said Reed, who lost to Willett, 2 and 1, in pool play. “I was able to hang around but he hit the ball so steady he didn’t really put himself in trouble. Anytime you hit the ball as straight as that, especially off the tee, you can attack the flags and be a little more aggressive. He got up early on me and I couldn’t come back.”
Willett went unbeaten in his matches the first three days at TPC Harding Park and followed with convincing victories over Westwood (3 and 2) and Tommy Fleetwood (4 and 3) before losing to Gary Woodland (3 and 2).
Success hasn’t come easy, however. Ever since his amateur career Willett has battled back issues. It is yet another obstacle he has had to balance. “It was becoming very frustrating,” Willett said.
Less frustrating is being able to split time between two tours. It’s a nice problem to have.
“This place is pretty cool,” a wide-eyed and excited Willett said, looking around at the expansive clubhouse and lush greenery at TPC Sawgrass. “I always watched it on TV and remember all the great finishes here.”