ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | When Danny Willett missed the 3½-footer that he needed to win the recent Fortinet Championship, and then missed the 4½-foot return putt to lose out to an astonished Max Homa, Willett’s father would have come up with that old saw, “It’s only golf.” The only difference is that the Rev. Stephen Willett, for long the vicar at Christ Church in Sheffield, England, would have meant it.
“A wise father is what you need in my golfing world,” said Willett, who shrugged off Jordan Spieth to win the 2016 Masters. “In fact, both of my parents have been amazing. We all know I’ve had an up-and-down career, but I can shoot an 89 one week and win a big event the next and their emotions never change. That level of consistency has meant everything to me.”
Ask Willett – he missed the 54-hole cut here last week at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, where he was the defending champion – how he has changed from the 28-year-old who won at Augusta, and he says, “I’ve grown up a bit.”
He could well have been thinking back to his gleefully uninhibited celebrations in Butler Cabin, Augusta National’s holy of holies. “I was a bit brash at that point. It struck me the moment I got back among my friends that while I had been getting carried away with my efforts at the Masters, they were still grinding things out for a living,” he said. “I needed to remember that I was just a normal chap from Sheffield who happened to be lucky enough to have a talent for golf.”
Never was there a better illustration of the growing-up process to which Willett had referred than the way he handled his collapse in the aforementioned Fortinet Championship.
“The only screaming I did was on the inside,” he said.
“Would I have liked to rewind the clock for a couple of minutes? Yeah, of course I would, only we can’t do that. You’ve got to kind of take the positives out of the occasion. I played great all day, and if the finish wasn’t what we wanted, you can still take a hell of a lot from having a great week.”
There are plenty of “We did this” and “We did that” in a Willett conversation, but where most of the players are talking about their teams, Willett appeared to be thinking as much about his parents’ contribution.
I had rung the Rev. Stephen Willett on that Friday in 2015 when his son was just one shot behind Dustin Johnson at the halfway stage of the Open at St Andrews, which eventually was won by Zach Johnson. Intriguingly, the vicar had not dropped everything to drive up to Scotland that night. He had a couple of weddings on his plate on the Saturday and a 10 o’clock service on the Sunday morning, and he would not have dreamed of handing them over to a locum.
Willett Snr. told me then that golf was turning out to be the making of his son. “Like many other sports, it encourages commitment and dedication, and Danny has been a different guy since he started to take it seriously.”
Given that his son had won the Nedbank Golf Challenge (previously the Million Dollar Challenge) a few months earlier, I asked if he worried that the potential riches to be made from golf might have an adverse effect on his lad. The vicar pointed at once to how the same problems might apply in any other high-profile, highly-pressurised career.
“In my boy’s case,” he added, “I just hope that his background will stand him in good stead. We brought him up to be polite, friendly and sensible with his money. We wanted him to make wise choices, which I think he does.”
Last week at St Andrews, Danny, a churchgoer himself, went back to how his family had helped him to get started in golf. He did not know as much at the time, but they re-mortgaged their home twice by way of paying his way in the amateur game. All he remembers – and he remembers it so well – was his mother, a maths teacher by name of Elisabet, telling him that they would happily fund him for as long as he treated his golf as a proper job.
There endeth what was the first and only lesson. Young Willett duly tried his heart out, and the parents, in turn, never pushed him.
“In my boy’s case, I just hope that his background will stand him in good stead. We brought him up to be polite, friendly and sensible with his money. We wanted him to make wise choices, which I think he does.”
The Rev. Stephen Willett
If there is anything Danny Willett would wish for the would-be golfing youngsters of today, it would be a couple of parents like his. From what he is noticing of many a modern parent, there is too much emphasis on their offspring’s every result, without paying any attention to the effect it might have on their lives: “Before very long, those kids begin to hate the sport.”
Willett had just been reading a tweet about Tiger Woods’ 13-year-old son, Charlie, giving his first press conference following a career-low 68 in a junior tournament with his dad on the bag. “It left me thinking how strange it must be for the little lad to know that his father is the finest golfer in the world,” said Willett, who turns 35 today. (He pondered, lightly, on whether Charlie might one day compare notes with Roger Federer’s two sets of twins if any of them were to follow their father into tennis.)
“Charlie,” he said, “wouldn’t be as good as he is now if he hadn’t wanted to do it himself. He certainly doesn’t come across as a child who’s been pushed – it’s looking like he loves what he does. In his case, what worries me is how’s he going to react to having the press following him ’round all the time.”
The moment Willett’s parents retired, Willett showed his appreciation for everything they had done by presenting them with a litter of pigs, some sheep, and a handsome farmhouse.
“Whenever I’m over there with Nicole (his wife) and the kids,” Willett said, “I’m not thinking about the next tournament but how lucky I have been with my family.”
Small wonder that when he was asked what he loved most about the Dunhill, his list of positives included how Rory McIlroy was playing with his father and Matt Fitzpatrick was playing with his mum. (Danny himself was playing with Jimmy Dunne, the vice chairman of American investment bank Piper Sandler and the man with whom he finished third in the team event last year.)
Of course, Willett went on to include the fact that he will be chasing Ryder Cup points. The only match he has played so far was the 2016 version when he collected zero points after his brother, Peter, had ruined his focus by making derogatory remarks about American crowds.
That was probably the first time that Willett would have had to remind the said brother, no less than himself, that it wasn’t the end of the world. That it was only golf.
Top: Danny Willett takes his golf in stride as defending champion at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.