2-week span turned Willett into new father, Masters champ

Profound moments in life provide an unforgettable sense of place.

The intimate spot of a proposal. The delivery room where a baby is held. Milestone transitions forever frozen in memory.

That moment at the Masters Tournament for Danny Willett wasn’t as traditional as a climactic putt or victory walk up the 18th fairway or the green jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin.

The realization that Willett’s career was on the verge of changing came in the toilet tucked behind the 16th tee at Augusta National Golf Club.

“I was in there only 30 seconds or so,” Willett said. “My heart was pumping. My heart was racing. But I remember thinking this is what I practice for – I’m leading the Masters.”

Willett wasn’t privy to the scene that unfolded a few holes behind him with Jordan Spieth rinsing two balls in Rae’s Creek and taking a quadruple-bogey 7 on the 12th hole. Moments before, Willett was dejected when the 12-foot birdie putt he thought he needed to apply pressure on Spieth ducked right of the cup on the par-5 15th.

“Good try that, pal,” his caddie, Jonathan Smart, said as he replaced the flag stick.

Willett muttered a curse to himself and headed toward the next tee, still in a better place than he was three holes earlier trailing by five strokes.

“Even when I missed, I knew I had everything to play for. Happy days,” Willett said. “As I walked off the green, everything changed again. Jordan went from 5-under to 1-under. I turned ’round and laughed. I thought they were (kidding) and had got the numbers wrong. But they hadn’t. I had guys shouting from the gallery, ‘Look at the board; you’re leading the Masters!’”

As the funereal silence resonating from Amen Corner was written in blood red on the leaderboards, another profane word flashed in Willett’s brain as he felt suddenly compelled to dash through the patrons and duck into the bathroom.

“In the grand scheme of things it was probably a good time to have some time to myself,” he said. “It was where I wanted to be – not in the toilet but in the lead. I was saying to myself, ‘Three holes left and five good swings.’ I had been very good mentally that week because I was in such a good place in my life. So I broke it down as simply as possible. What did I have to do? Make five good swings and hopefully make some putts. And if I do that, we’ll see what happens.”

New dad

April 10, 2016, projected to be a very different milestone in Willett’s life. His wife, Nicole, was due to have their first child on Masters Sunday back in England, and Willett insisted he would not travel to Augusta if their son was “not cooked yet.”

“If she’s not given birth, I’ll not go,” Willett stated March 1.

On March 30, 11 days early, Zachariah James Willett arrived via cesarean section. Five days later, with Nic and the baby safely ensconced at home in Yorkshire, the new dad left for the Masters.

“I actually went to Augusta on cloud nine,” Willett said. “It was a fantastic experience to be there when my son was born. And I was able to help out looking after him for a few days before I left. The timing couldn’t have been better, really. Any later and my preparation for the Masters would have been disturbed and a bit shorter. But as it turned out I was able to enjoy my time at home then go to Augusta feeling fresh.”

Willett was the last player to arrive at Augusta National on Tuesday and received caddie bib No. 89 in the 89-man field – the same number Jack Nicklaus had in 1986. Willett enjoyed the “single-mindedness” of what he called “a chilled-out week.”

“I had been playing well to that point so I wasn’t going there thinking I needed to grind on anything,” Willett said. “My game was already in good shape. My time was spent preparing for the tournament, not working on my swing. I was able to enjoy everything else that goes with being at the Masters.”

Willett’s ease of mind going to Augusta was apparent to his family.

“There must have been something psychologically to the fact that he went out with no expectation whatsoever,” said his brother, Pete Willett. “Something so much more important had happened to him. You’ve got to think that possibly played into him taking the pressure off.”

Other than the usual congratulations for the new father, Willett didn’t attract much attention. He hid in plain sight on the leaderboard every day, staking a spot inside the top 10 just three or four shots behind leader Spieth at the end of each of the first three rounds.

His presence was overshadowed by the defending champion, who essentially led the Masters for 129 consecutive holes since the eighth hole of his wire-to-wire win in 2015. When the spotlight veered at all beyond Spieth, it typically lit in proximity on more familiar household names like Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia or Hideki Matsuyama. Even 58-year-old past champion Bernhard Langer and heralded amateur Bryson DeChambeau stole more headlines than the upward-trending 28-year-old Englishman ranked No. 12 in the world.

“That’s amazing because I hadn’t been outside the top (10) all week,” said Willett. “I think if you are not in the top five in the world you can slip under the radar pretty easily. … These days that is how it is. Unless you are on the billboards everywhere you can go unnoticed. Which is not to say it wasn’t good for me.”

Even by the time the tournament reached the back nine Sunday with Willett alone in second place, he was rendered almost invisible by the runaway leader’s four-birdie burst that closed out the front to open a five-shot lead. Spieth was seemingly in cruise control to become only the fourth player to win consecutive Masters.

Willett persisted as a lurker, never making any mistakes in a bogey-free Sunday.

“I just went out there to play some good golf, hope things went my way and see what happened,” he said. “I was focused on being aggressive though. I knew I had an opportunity to do something, and if that came along I wanted to be able to take it. So to be in and around the lead was great, even if I was just far enough away to not have everyone watching me. But I was close enough.”

Discovering his game

The son of a Church of England vicar (Stephen) and a Swedish mathematics teacher (Elisabet), Willett had a Yorkshire upbringing more like the working-class Coronation Street than the aristocratic Downton Abbey.

“Kind of urban – pretty dank and pretty dirty,” is how his brother, Pete, describes the terrace houses and flats of Sheffield where they were raised.

Willett’s parents conducted a long-distance relationship before his father proposed to settle down in one place and get married.

“Mum sent him a letter demanding that he grow a couple more inches before she’d marry him,” Pete said. “She genuinely did. We’ve read the letter. … He didn’t grow but for some reason they still got married.”

Danny was the third of four brothers separated by 16 years from oldest (Matt) to youngest (Sam). Their home was often a hub of strangers their father tended to as the parish priest. A relentless stream of ribbing often accompanied the vicar’s sons.

“It’s a little tricky being brought up in that sort of environment,” Willett said. “When you’re at school, faith isn’t something that comes up a lot in class or the playground. I did get a bit of stick and some bullying – ‘Bible basher’ and all that stuff – but I couldn’t have asked for better parents.”

Danny’s older brothers were 7 and 5 when he came along, leaving him exposed to the usual sibling hazards such as getting locked in the trunk of the car while his brothers drove around.

“Run-of-the-mill just brothers beating each other up and trying to make them feel bad all of the time,” said Pete, five years Danny’s senior.

Willett naturally struggled to compete with his older siblings in the usual playground games that favored strength.

“Whatever sports we were playing, he would then try his hardest to match us,” said Pete. “He’s kind of grown with us essentially allowing him to join in when we wanted to, and when he did join in we’d try to beat him senseless.”

On a family trip to Wales, however, Willett found his calling at a pitch-and-putt golf course in the middle of a sheep pasture on the island of Anglesey.

“Suddenly, I was the best player, even if I was the smallest,” he said. “I didn’t need to be bigger or quicker. So I took to it right away. It was a way for me to get my own back, really.”

Said Pete: “It got to the stage where we’d go down to the field and play football and he’d take his golf clubs down and hit golf balls around. It was humiliating for us because we were all trying to play football and he’s chipping around the field.”

His penchant for stick-and-ball games stood out as he grew older.

“I remember our PE teacher, Mr. Roberts, kind of described him at 15 or 16 that he’d never seen anybody who was such a natural ball striker,” Pete said. “You put a tool in his hand and a ball and he’ll be brilliant at it.”

At age 12, Willett joined a junior development program in Sheffield designed to get kids off the sofa and into activities.

He could play golf for free at the municipal Birley Wood course a few tram stops from his father’s church. His peers at the time didn’t find Willett to be “especially good,” but he talked a good game and worked even harder at it.

“He wasn’t like a young Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy or anything,” Jonathan Pyle, now the head pro at Birley Wood, told The Guardian newspaper after Willett’s win in Augusta. ”He was good, but he wasn’t that good. I mostly remember his swagger – he was a nice lad but he was cocky and always on the line of being a bit too cocky.”

“He’s always been a very confident young man – very, very firm-minded,” said Pete Ball, who ran the junior program at Birley Wood. “But he was a young man who put a lot of extra work in. He lived literally just down the road and would come up every night, even in the winter, he’d stay there ’til pitch black. Danny was hitting golf balls in the pouring rain when it was dark for about 2½ hours by the light of a pub.”

His Yorkshire breeding fueled his determination to get better.

“We’re known up north for Yorkshire grit and digging your heels in when you know you’re right and working hard,” Willett said. “I’m pretty sure I tick most of them boxes. I’ve got three brothers, four boys. You could never stop until you could beat them at something. It does kind of leak into my golf game now.”

When Willett moved as a young teenager to Bondhay Golf Club near Westwood’s hometown of Worksop, his game progressed with him.

“He was just a normal boy who liked playing golf,” said the club’s coach Justin Fores, who helped the young Willett improve from a 28 handicap to a plus-3. “In a nice way, he was a little bit arrogant. But he knows his own abilities and knows he can win. He’s not changed that much now.”

His older siblings thought his growing golf obsession was a bit much.

“All of our opinions were only ever that he might be a club pro one day or a really good golfer who can enjoy it as a hobby but he’ll have to get a proper job,” said Pete, who is a high school drama teacher and a writer. “Nobody every thought he would turn into anything.

“The older he got, the more he started throwing everything to the side and concentrating more and more on the golf and the more scared people got because it was such a ridiculous risk because it’s not like he was ever going to become a professional golfer.”

First good shot

Late Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Willett told himself “five good swings” in the toilet behind the No. 16 tee when the opportunity came along.

The first would be a key at the par-3 16th hole. Willett’s initial memory of the Masters on TV as a teenager happened on the pond-fronted gem called Redbud. It was the 2005 Masters, when Tiger Woods’ iconic horseshoe chip hung on the lip before dropping to help secure his last green jacket.

“I was kind of really getting into golf then,” Willett said. “And you see that, it was almost like the perfect advert for that tournament. I remember that shot that he played over millions and millions of times, him and (caddie) Stevie (Williams) going crazy and the cameras shaking and the ball just dropping in. It’s them moments I think he created for guys that are my kind of age, that really spurred them on to train harder and to practice harder and to try and accomplish even a minuscule amount of what he has.”

Eleven years later, here was Willett on the 16th tee with a one-shot lead over playing partner and fellow Yorkshire golfer Westwood, who had just chipped in for eagle on No. 15 to take the honors. He calculated 176 yards to the pin – about 10 yards longer than his usual 8-iron – but decided the warm weather and adrenaline should take care of that. Willett believed he needed at least one more birdie to fend off his pursuers.

“I hit it perfect,” he said. “Looking back now, it gives me goosebumps. It was a great shot. It wasn’t stiff, but I left it in the ideal place – 7 feet uphill, right-to-left is about as easy a putt as you can have on that green. With maybe two cups of movement I could be quite aggressive. All I was focused on was starting it on line and keeping my head down.”

When his birdie dropped and Westwood three-putted for bogey, Willett’s lead was three shots with two to play.

The next level

Willett accepted an offer to play college golf in America at Jacksonville State. So he took his growing talents to the foothills of Alabama, where he was the Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the year in 2006 and conference medalist in 2007.

“Me and Alabama was interesting,” Willett said of an experience that developed his independence and practice skills. “I ended up talking a lot slower and repeating myself a lot more.”

In the summer after his second year he won the English Amateur and earned a spot on Great Britain &Ireland’s 2007 Walker Cup team at Royal County Down in Ireland, where he was teammates with McIlroy against a stacked American squad that included Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson, Billy Horschel, Chris Kirk and Colt Knost.

“Playing in the same Walker Cup team with (McIlroy) made it clear to me what I was up against,” Willett said.

While McIlroy went immediately to European Tour school after the 2007 Walker Cup, Willett went back to Jacksonville State. But after three weeks, he got homesick.

“My head was somewhere else,” he said. “I had had a good summer at home and played nicely at the Walker Cup, and when I got back I looked around and wondered what I was doing there. I didn’t need the degree. So I sat down with the coach for a chat and decided I would go home.”

Again, his brothers disagreed.

“It was when he quit university, which was going really well for him, I thought that was a risk because I was pleased that he was at least getting an education,” Pete said. “Then he decided to quit and get ready to become pro, which I thought was an even more stupid decision.”

Working regularly with his swing coach while with the elite amateur England squad, Willett’s game stepped it up another level. He took the No. 1 world amateur ranking from Fowler in March 2008 and held it for 12 weeks before deciding it was time to turn pro in May.

Good save

Augusta roars were percolating around Spieth and Dustin Johnson behind him playing adjacent holes, so the pressure was firmly on Willett’s shoulders to find the remaining four “good shots” to keep them at bay.

His drive stopped at the left edge of the fairway on No. 17, requiring a draw around trees for his 8-iron approach from 160 yards. His hook came in hot, rolling off the back left of the green, leaving him a daunting long pitch across a ridge to the hole cut on the far right side. Masters are often lost on such shots.

Willett’s pitch, however, landed softly and rolled out to a cozy 2 feet for a clutch up-and-down to save par.

“I know I’ll go back there this year and try that shot again with a tee stuck in the green where the pin was,” he said. “It won’t be quite the same but I want to see how good it was. It was a tight lie. And my hands were shaking. I was thinking, ‘(Expletive), I’m leading!’ But I pulled it off. And when the ball stopped I thought, ‘Actually that was pretty good.’”

Turning pro

On his first try, Willett made it through all three stages of qualifying school to earn his European Tour card. He posted eight top-10 finishes his rookie season, climbing from 1,034th in the world into the top 100 within two years after making his pro debut.

“It was just part of the process,” he said of the meticulous steps he took in building a reputation as Europe’s next big thing. “I’ve always been a bit of a late developer. And although I was playing nicely, there was always someone playing a bit better.”

His steady success leading up to his maiden win at the BMW International Open in Germany in 2012 had finally allayed any family fears that Willett had chosen the wrong path.

“He essentially put all his eggs into the one basket,” Pete said. “If it hadn’t worked out for golf, he would not be in a good position at the moment. He’d be earning hopefully a decent wage as a club pro but kind of bitter that it hadn’t worked out.”

It did work out, despite a balky back in 2013 that derailed his professional advancement. Even that worked in furthering his personal life with Nic in the two months he was sidelined before slowly working his way back to full strength over an 18-month stretch.

“We got married and went on honeymoon at a time when I couldn’t play, so everything happens for a reason,” he said.

A healthier and more careful Willett – now working with swing coaches Pete Cowen and Mike Walker – finally fully aligned with his potential in 2015 when he reached the semifinals of the WGC Match Play, contended in the British Open at St. Andrews and won the European Masters. A victory in Dubai at the start of 2016 launched his road to the Masters as an entrenched top-15 player.

While he travels the world with golf’s elite, his head and heart remain grounded in England.

“It’s a balancing thing,” he said. “Life on tour isn’t real; it’s not real life. It’s a bonkers world. We are so indulged and that just isn’t real. Anyone who lives too much out here will have serious problems dealing with everyday life. My ‘real’ life is at home with my wife, my parents and my brothers. That’s my idea of a good time. I just enjoy being normal.”

Last good shots

Willett’s lead had narrowed to two strokes as he stepped to the 18th tee, with Johnson and Spieth making birdies on both par-5s behind him to reach 3-under. The narrow chute between the trees and patrons only made it more claustrophobic.

“That channel can look pretty bloody tight,” Willett said.

It appeared as if the nerves might be getting to him, as he twice backed away from address with his 3-wood. It was merely poise.

“I had to step off the tee shot on the 18th twice because people were running about,” Willett said. “I put the club back in the bag. Took the glove off. Had another look at the yardage book. Then started again. And I went through all the mental processes I try to teach myself – some I don’t do every time. That showed how sharp I was under that pressure.”

His drive split the gap, settling 298 yards later at the far end of the fairway short of the bunkers.

“That told me something about myself; when I get in that sort of situation again I know I can handle it,” he said.

The last good shot he needed was a 7-iron from 183 yards, and his ball banked off the mound fronting the right side and rolled safely onto the green 20 feet from the cup. After a tentative lag to 18 inches, Willett peeled off his white sweater to reveal his green shirt and calmly putted out for a 67 to set the mark at 5-under.

Any remaining threats melted away. Johnson doubled No. 17 to end his rally bid. Spieth missed a 6-foot birdie chance on the 16th and his repeat hopes ended with a bogey after missing the green on No. 17.

Willett got smothered in an embrace from his caddie in the clubhouse as he spoke on the phone with his wife when it became official that he would be claiming the first green jacket by an Englishman since three-time winner Nick Faldo in 1996.

“The next four hours are a complete blur to be honest,” he said of the Butler Cabin interview, green jacket ceremony, interviews and party that followed. “It was ridiculous … and a bit surreal. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘What just happened?’”

Willett was only 8 and not yet aware of golf when Faldo took advantage of Greg Norman’s collapse in 1996, so he only “vaguely remembers” seeing the coverage of it. Now he is an example to a new generation that nothing is ever over until it’s over – especially the Masters.

“I was brought up watching Tiger around Augusta,” Willett said. “The back nine on Sunday was where everything happened. It’s a cliche because it’s true. And you have to bring your best if you want to win.”

Three holes to glory

To many, the 2016 Masters will always be the one that Spieth let get away. The image of the defending champion hitting two balls into Rae’s Creek en route to a crushing quad on the shortest hole on the golf course is indelible.

Spieth’s losing a five-shot lead through the first steps of Amen Corner draws easy comparison to Norman’s demise 20 years earlier. Faldo’s final-round 67 in 1996 was overshadowed by the Australian great’s failure to hang onto a six-shot lead.

Willett gets the parallels but isn’t concerned whether anyone feels Spieth lost it more than Willett won it.

“Currently mine is jaded by Jordan’s play on (holes) 10, 11 and 12 – I understand that,” Willett said. “People can take it as they want. But the person who wins is the guy who shoots the lowest score over 72 holes.”

His brother, who long ago buried any doubts about his brother’s potential, bristles at the suggestion that Willett had anything handed to him.

“I understand people’s arguments and why they would say that, but the defensive part of me in defending my brother, it winds me up,” Pete said. “It’s such a ridiculous statement to make with three holes left. Three holes left to just close out a tournament that you can win is nerve-wracking. Three holes left to close out a Sunday match with a bunch of mates is nerve-wracking and your hands will shake over a putt. Three holes left to close the Masters – it is the seminal tournament on the calendar.

“So as much as Jordan Spieth threw away that hole, Danny still had three holes left where the only way you can win the Masters is if you win the Masters. Those three holes he had to do something which very few professional golfers in the world would have been able to do. Danny won that Masters. It was presented to him in a way that gave him a chance to do it, but he still had to do it.”

Over time, Faldo’s flawless performance that contributed to Norman’s collapse gained greater appreciation. Willett’s should also age well. All he did was show up late, lay in wait, not make mistakes and seize opportunity when it came to him.

Two of the most profound moments in Willett’s life converged in an 11-day span. When anyone asks how the 80th Masters was won, it’s how Willett responded to his biggest professional test when it was presented to him and stole away with the green jacket.

“You do pinch yourself, but I knew it was in there,” Willett said. “You dream about it and stuff and you practice hard for it, and then when it does happen, I guess, yeah, you have got to pinch yourself and appreciate just what you’ve done.”

What Willett did was respond to the moment not with fear or failure, but with five good shots that changed his life.

 

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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