Perhaps it’s fitting that the story of a blue-collar Masters champion from England would provide such a Dickensian twist – a tale of two seasons, best of times, worst of times and all that.
Danny Willett’s season of light and darkness could cause whiplash.
“It’s been a very turbulent year,” Willett said before the European Tour’s November finale in Dubai. “We’ve had the ultimate of highs and a few real lows the last few months.”
Tiger Woods always classified any season in which he won a major championship as “great,” and by most reasonable standards Willett’s 2016 was exceptional. A catalyst victory in January, a major championship breakthrough, top-threes in a World Golf Championship (Doral) and the European Tour’s flagship event (Wentworth), a berth in golf’s return to the Olympics, qualifying for his first Ryder Cup, runner-up in the Euro Tour’s season-long points race and a fixture among the world’s top 15. A year like that would define the pinnacle for most golfers.
Golf, however, has a way of humbling its champions. Willett couldn’t just walk away from Augusta National in his green jacket and enjoy the offseason like Tom Brady after the Super Bowl. There’s no resting on laurels.
“We’ve had an amazing year, if you look at it as a whole,” he said. “I don’t think you can expect to ever go through a full year and not have any downs in there. It’s just been a shame that the lows in the year I guess have come when they have.”
It’s not always easy carrying the mantle of reigning Masters champion from April onward. Opportunities present themselves that interfere with routines. Expectations change, both internally and externally. The spotlight brightens. Anonymity diminishes.
“You can’t really complain about signing a few autographs and taking a few pictures because you’ve just won the Masters,” Willett said.
But it can take a toll inside the ropes, especially when the form that won a green jacket isn’t so easily repeatable week in and week out.
“That’s the thing, so crazy how your mind works with these things,” Willett said. “You think that you should be able to play well every time just because you’ve done what you’ve done, but it’s a game. Doesn’t happen like that. There’s 156 guys every week working hard and practicing, and it’s not as easy to win every tournament, as what you feel like it should be when you’re playing well and stuff. It just doesn’t happen.”
Willett’s year of extremes – triumph and controversy, elation and frustration – ranged from a spring of hope to a winter of despair.
Willett already had planned an extended break after the Masters to spend time at home with his wife and newborn son. It was not exactly the peaceful vacation he’d envisioned.
“It was mental,” Willett said of the reaction to his Masters victory when he got home to England. “The whole country was watching, apparently. We’ve had British winners before, but not for a while. It was brilliant. When I got back it was crazy. I was supposed to have five weeks off looking after Nic and the baby, but it turned into a bizarre few weeks. I was pulled from pillar to post constantly.”
This was unfamiliar territory for the Willetts.
“There was BBC footage of Danny having to direct traffic on his road because he had 40 or 50 cars lining up of journalists outside his home,” said Pete Willett, Danny’s older brother. “It reached a new level. We all had journalists knocking at the door and disturbing our neighbors for a few days.”
“It was a tough four weeks in that we had no privacy,” Danny said. “I had to do a lot of media things, things I couldn’t turn down. Which is not to say I wanted to. I just couldn’t. I’d just had a little boy and I wanted to relax. That four weeks was supposed to be practice and training, but they turned into celebrations and media stuff. Not what I had in mind.”
Off the course, Willett was toasted wearing his green jacket at Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix with other VIPs. On the course, Willett’s post-Masters performance is reflective of Bubba Watson’s in 2012.
Watson won at Augusta on the heels of adopting his first child with his wife, Angie. He took time away from competing after the Masters, skipping the Players Championship and only honoring his commitment as defending champion in New Orleans in the two months after taking home the green jacket.
Watson’s results weren’t poor, but he fell from fourth to 14th in the world before returning to Augusta the next April. He slipped as far as No. 30 in the world and didn’t register his next victory until 22 months later at Riviera in 2014, just eight weeks before winning his second Masters.
Willett never climbed higher than the No. 9 ranking he gained immediately after winning the Masters, holding that rank through the summer as he made the cut in each of the other majors without contending.
“I tried not to put too much expectation on myself, but it was hard,” he said. “Every time I was on the range or on the putting green there was a camera in my face. I’m an emotional person. I swear a lot – not in a bad way, but it is what I do. But with a camera in your face you’re not quite the same person somehow. My practice wasn’t quite so intense.”
Willett’s good run started to turn at Wentworth. He raced to a huge early lead at 12-under through 27 holes only to fall back and finish third, two shots behind Chris Wood’s winning total of 9-under.
“I let that slip,” he said. “I got a bit angry, maybe because of expectations. I got pissed off too easily. Then I never quite got back on top of myself.”
Willett posted a ragged tie for 37th in the 60-man Olympic field, 16 strokes behind gold medalist countryman Justin Rose. A runner-up finish to hometown favorite Francesco Molinari in the Italian Open, however, had things seemingly trending upward into the Ryder Cup.
“I’m sure it’s going to be 100 times worse when we get to the Ryder Cup in America, but it’s been a little bit of a taster,” Willett said of the boisterous Italian crowds that cheered Molinari to the win.
He had no idea.
Pete Willett made a name for himself during his brother’s finish at the Masters with his humorous Twitter feed.
“Speechless. I once punched that kid in the head for hurting my pet rat. Now look.”
“If the boy does what he should, I will be able to say I’ve shared a bath with a Masters winner.”
“Green makes you look fat, refuse the jacket.”
His notoriety gained him a regular column in the UK’s National Club Golfer magazine, where he could stretch his humorous voice.
A few days before the Ryder Cup’s opening matches, Pete Willett’s unapologetically biased preview column was posted. It was heavy on satire, stereotyping American golf galleries as a “baying mob of imbeciles” and how his brother’s Euro team needed to silence “the pudgy, basement-dwelling, irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and pissy beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hotdog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red.”
Lost behind the descriptive insults was the point of the satire a few paragraphs later.
“During my 33 years as an avid sports watcher, I have never cared more about the result of a single event,” Pete Willett wrote. “I am desperate for a win. Such desperation can lead to puerile outbursts. A more immature mind than mine might resort to petty insults or unflattering generalisations.”
The column might not have drawn any attention in the U.S. until it made it into the hands of European captain Darren Clarke. Next thing you know, Clarke was apologizing on the Golf Channel and huddling with Willett to apologize to U.S. captain Davis Love III and the American audience for “a bad article written at a bad time.”
The attention cast a pall on Willett’s week and became a self-fulfilling prophecy as some rowdy fans at Hazeltine targeted not only Willett but also his parents and wife walking inside the ropes.
“I don’t think you should be walking around playing golf while people are saying things to your parents and saying things to your wife,” Willett said. “I don’t think that’s our sport, that’s not what we play for, that’s not what we do.”
Willett was beaten in all three of his matches as the European team lost the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008. Asked how to describe his overall first Ryder Cup experience in the team press conference, Willett was crudely blunt with an expletive as his answer.
In hindsight, his response was incomplete.
“The press conference on the Sunday evening was just me speaking my mind, 20 minutes after we had lost,” Willett said. “When I was asked how my week had gone – one in which I scored no points and had all that other stuff going on – what was I supposed to say?”
He repeated the expletive, but said the overall Ryder Cup experience was “great.”
“It’s an awesome experience. To be in and around a group of guys aiming for the same goal doesn’t happen very often in golf. Regardless of all the bad stuff, I will look back on that as a great thing to have been part of. … It would have been a lot easier if I had played really well. It would have taken the edge off all the other stuff.”
Pete Willett regrets the firestorm his satire created and the effect it had on his brother.
“I wouldn’t have done it had I known that would happen,” Pete said. “Danny and I have decided that the best thing we can do is not fuel that one. I could talk at length about it, but I wish it had just been ignored. I’m more conscious of not leaving myself open to having something turned into anything else.”
Danny said there are no hard feelings between the brothers, and he hopes that proves the same with American golf fans.
“I just hope that when I get back to America it doesn’t carry on,” he said. “I’ve won the Masters. I spent two years at college in the States. I’ve played there a lot. I was getting to the stage where I thought I was well-liked there. I just hope that hasn’t changed.”
The cloud of the Ryder Cup hung over the rest of Willett’s year.
“By the time of the Ryder Cup, it had already been a long year,” Willett said. “I didn’t play great anyway, but all that went on didn’t help either. It just magnified it all. Then the rest of the season was just a sharp drop-off. I was physically and mentally shot. I just didn’t want to be playing.”
By the end of October, Open champion Henrik Stenson overtook Willett’s once wide lead in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings. Willett was unable to turn it around.
“I’m trying to work a little more on thinking a bit better and just looking at things maybe from a broader aspect and saying, ‘You know what, even if you miss the cut, even if you miss 20 cuts and won a major in a year, would you class it as a good year?’” he said. “There would be varying opinions on that answer, but you would still say it’s a good season.”
With the exception of a pair of strong top-six finishes in Hong Kong and Malaysia, Willett still hasn’t regained the form that led him to the Masters win. In his buildup to Augusta, he missed the cut at PGA National and never broke par in Mexico City. He withdrew from Bay Hill on the morning of the first round because of an illness.
“We worked really hard on the game, and we’re trying … we’re trying to get back there,” he said.
“The game is not far away.”
Confidence, however, is not an easy thing to rekindle. Willett has an effective prop hanging in his wardrobe, but just looking at the green jacket isn’t always enough to jump-start a champion’s faith.
“Even if you were to win 20 times in the year, if you don’t win one of them majors and you don’t kind of get the same feelings that I did on Sunday down at Augusta, it doesn’t feel as good,” Willett said. “I don’t think anything is going to feel as good as winning that first major.”