Where there’s a Will: A reflection on Danny Willett’s superb comeback

Danny Willett on his way to victory at the DP World Tour Championship
Danny Willett on his way to victory at the DP World Tour Championship
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Nine hundred and fifty three.

A number that will forever hold a great deal of significance for Danny Willett.

Danny Willett celebrates his win in Dubai with wife Nicole and sons Zachariah and Noah

Danny Willett celebrates his win in Dubai with wife Nicole and sons Zachariah and Noah

It marks the number of days between the Sheffield golfer securing one of the sport’s great achievements and cementing one of the most special comeback stories in its history.

In those 953 days Willett went from golfing heaven to personal hell and back again.

A remarkable victory at The Masters on April 11, 2016 saw him catapulted from a consistently strong and successful European Tour player to one of the world elite.

It was to be only the start of the story. Unfortunately, a far from happy one.

Danny Willett

Danny Willett

Though the decline did not set in immediately, by the end of 2016 that sunny Sunday at Augusta felt like a lifetime away.

At first it seemed he was struggling to adapt to life in the spotlight as a Major winner.

And then came a disastrous Ryder Cup debut that September – his brother’s comments about American supporters putting him in a much more intense spotlight.

But these points of narrative masked a growing problem for Willett and his golf game.

His body was betraying him and preventing him from delivering the form that had made him one of Europe’s most consistent best.

Almost as long as he had been on the European Tour, Willett had battled problems with injury. Time off and intensive physiotherapy had helped to keep him one step ahead.

But at some point during 2016, he stopped winning the battle.

He could no longer play without pain, certainly so in the four day period over which tournaments are held.

Good days on the course were rarely followed up. In 2017, he missed cuts in 38 per cent of the tournaments he entered – his worst in the preceding five years had been 26 per cent. One top ten and two top 20 finishes were the best of his performances in a season he opened ranked 12th in the world and ended at 157th.

In ranking terms, it would get much worse. By May this year – two years year and one month on from the Masters triumph that took him to ninth in the world – Willett had dropped to 462nd.

Not a sportsman to live his life in the spotlight, the true depths of his struggles are unlikely to be revealed for some time – at least until what would surely be one of the great sporting autobiographies, if it is ever written.

But as his second rise in golf has progressed, he has offered glimpses into his battle for health and happiness, both on and off the course.

In a deeply personal one-off blog for the European Tour website he spoke of all-consuming dark times, of not wanting to play any more. While a fascinating read, it suggested at that time there was to be no way back to the top for Willett.

All that time, a constant background noise of social media chatter will have been impossible to ignore. Self-effacing Twitter posts after tournament exits received dozens of responses berating him as washed-up or a one-hit wonder, denigrating his Masters triumph as a mere fluke.

Everything seemed to be a struggle and it was not pleasant to watch him in action. He could not escape to rebuild in private because professional sport rarely affords such a luxury,

Yet, strangely enough, while his standing in the golfing world declined to unimaginable lows, the improvement and rebuild had already begun for Willett.

After trying everything he could to strengthen his body or adapt his game, there came a realisation that more drastic changes were needed.

He began a revolution of the team around him – the people he refers to as ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ whenever he is discussing his game.

In an eyebrow-raising sequence, he split from caddy Jonathan Smart, management ISM and coaches Mike Walker and Pete Cowan.

A more personal management strategy was crafted and good friend Sam Haywood took up the bag.

Perhaps most significantly was the work he began with coach Sean Foley, starting at the USPGA Championship in 2017.

Willett needed more than just a coach to tweak his game, he needed someone who understood why his golf swing was causing pain.

Foley is renowned for such knowledge and together they began the search for a swing that would end the pain and take Willett back to the heights he had previously reached.

The results were not instant, certainly on the course where he made just one cut in the opening nine events of the 2018 season which saw him slump to 462nd in the world.

But in health terms he was getting better.

That sequence of poor results was ended with a tie for eighth at this year's Italian Open in June. Although back-to-back missed cuts would follow, it marked the beginning of the public turnaround.

Willett quickly reached a point where the individual pieces of his game were, at any one time, strong. The battle became about piecing them together.

The biggest indicator that he was on the right track was his demeanour on course and in front of the camera.

For a long time surly, he was beginning to show a much more positive and pleasant nature.

For the first time in a long while, Willett looked happy playing golf and comfortable in his own skin.

He tied for seventh at the Turkish Airlines Open earlier this month, in the same week that he took part in the European Tour’s ever-entertaining 14-club challenge with Lee Westwood. Such frivolities seemed an age away not so long ago.

So when he was firmly in contention after day one of the DP World Tour Championship last weekend, there was real hope and optimism that he could remain so throughout the weekend.

And, with four superbly consistent days of golf, holding off the challenge of reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed, he did more than that. He came away with a bloody big sceptre of a trophy for his efforts.

Late in 2018, he delivered one of the most heartwarming achievements of the sporting year.

Clutching his first trophy in two-and-a-half years, he was joined for a picture-perfect photo opportunity in the Dubai sunshine by wife Nicole and young sons Zachariah and Noah – three people who no doubt kept him sane and driven on his long road back.

That journey reached a brilliant milestone last Sunday but it is not complete yet, as Willett will admit himself.

With the pain now gone, the task now is finding the consistency that evaded him for so long as he looks to push back into the game’s elite.

A chance of a redemptive second bite at the Ryder Cup cherry is a tantalising prospect.

At 31, time is on his side.

And the signs are that last Sunday’s triumph in the desert will be the opening line of a whole new happier chapter in the Danny Willett story.

The clock was reset at nine hundred and fifty three. And you would not bet on it running for anywhere near as long this time.