Danny Willett on a '˜bonkers' 2016 - becoming a father, a Master and his pride in BBC Sports Personality of the Year nomination
This was an interview that could have started and ended with the very first sentence, in reply to the very first question, put to Sheffield hero Danny Willett.
Thankfully there was only a short pause before Willett elaborated, but “bonkers from start to finish” just about sums it up.
“We started the year strong in Dubai,” he went on, “and then obviously continued that form and had the craziest two weeks of my life back in April. Yes, the rollercoaster went a little bit downhill after that and it’s finally feeling like we’re going back up again and finishing nice and strong last week.”
Dubai set the tone for the year back in February with what was regarded as a surprising victory in the Desert Classic. Surprises would become a feature.
A few decent displays meant that Willett went into The Masters in April off the back of enough form that would have people at least sit up and take notice, if not place him as a man who could win it. However, any anticipation Willett was feeling around that time was on matters far from a golf course.
A first child beckoned for Danny and his wife, Nicole, and the little one wasn’t just due, he was due in Masters week.
“It was just pure excitement about the little man coming along,” he said. “It’s our first child and everyone tells you how good it is and everything was based on Nic and the little man and making sure everything was alright. Fortunately enough (new son, Zachariah) came on the Tuesday before Augusta which gave me four or five days to look after Nic and spend some time with them both and really enjoy that experience. We went to Augusta really, with not too much expectation. We had not really done loads, I was playing good golf before that but I went out there with a completely different view on a few things, with the little man at home and obviously had the week of our lives.”
No expectations, no nerves, no worries; Willett could block out the Augusta anxiety and just enjoy himself, no? “That’s true until you start playing good golf for nine holes!” he pointed out.
That good golf would become great with an incredible finish seeing Willett storm into a lead. When it looked for all the world that Jordan Spieth would be picking out ties to compliment his green jacket, the young Texan would suffer a nightmare start to his back nine and from there, Willett seized his moment to cap off “an awesome experience.”
“We went into the day three back,” he recalls. “We knew we had to play some pretty good golf. Jordan, as you can see he is very good around that golf course and it was a pretty tricky day, the winds were swirling, we played good, solid golf all week and just had a great Sunday, played some good golf, didn’t drop a shot all day.
“We never gave anything back to the field, we kept putting pressure on and getting closer and closer and closer until finally he was going to keep going as he was or something was going to happen like it did on 10, 11 and 12. It’s basically 40 mins from two behind to two in front. It was building all day and from viewing purposes it was very good being able to see us all playing at different times in different parts of the golf course. The noises that were coming from the different parts of the golf course were amazing. The atmosphere was great. Just an awesome experience really and to be there and play that kind of golf on a Sunday.”
Shock victory in Augusta, a rare British success on the old course that had infamously broken a young Rory McIlroy brought with it an added interest in the Willett family, something he admits being unprepared for.
“It’s been different,” he says, underplaying it all somewhat. “I like to do my bits and then relax at home with friends and family - that’s the way I’ve always done it. You can appreciate how different it is for these guys who go through it week-in week-out and obviously it went that way a little bit for us but it’s something that you have got to get used to if you want to be in that position.
“If you want to win majors you have got to take everything that comes with it. We are learning to deal with it and it’s slightly better now we have had it for a few months.”
What he certainly wasn’t prepared for, was his brother Peter making headlines when Willett was about to fulfil a dream and make his Ryder Cup bow.
Peter wound up the US fans - and Europe captain Darren Clarke - with his views in a very tongue-in-cheek column, but the biggest disappointment in the Willett household was the fact that Danny didn’t show his potential on that particular stage.
Immediately afterwards, he described the whole Ryder Cup experience as ‘s***’. He’s mellowed a bit since. “It’s the first one of many and you just move on from it.”
Following that, a slip up in form towards the end of the season meant there was no Race to Dubai title either.
“I was playing a little bit too much golf and pushing the body a little bit too far and the mind a little bit too far; that’s something you have got to learn from. It’s a difficult one at the end of the year when you are playing good golf you seem to play a lot and that’s something you have got to taking into consideration for years to come.
He added: “You learn every week, you learn new things and how you are going to cope better with certain situations. I’m sure the guiys who have been on tour for 15-20 years are still learning.
He won’t have 2016 defined by disappointments, though; his latest honour coming in the shape of a BBC Sports Personality of the Year nomination. No mean feat this time around and there’s genuine pride in the nod. Not least in keeping up the recent traditions in success for his city and his county.
“You look back at who’s been on the shortlist over the past few years. It’s amazing to be recognised for what we’ve done this year, to be on that. There are a lot of good athletes are aren’t in the final 16 and specially with it being an Olympic year I would have thought it was especially difficult to get on that. To be recognised and to be part of it is going to be brilliant so I’m really looking forward to getting down there and meeting the other athletes and hopefully we get a few votes and make it close to maybe getting up on stage.
“You look at Sheffield, you look at Yorkshire as a sporting area; they’ve had some phenomenal athletes in a lot of different sports. It’s nice to be recognised for what we’ve done and just to keep Sheffield going nicely within that, so yes, it’s great.”
BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2016 takes place on Sunday. Live coverage on BBC One, BBC Online and on Five Live