By James Corrigan
It was Michael Campbell who compared winning a Major to scaling Everest. ‘Nobody ever tells you how to get down,’ the Kiwi said as he slipped and slid on the seat of his pants until finally giving up the game in utter dejection less than a decade after his US Open glory.
It is a salient tale, but one Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, is determined to ignore. Keep looking upwards, is his philosophy – up to the stars and beyond. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds where Campbell, and so many other one-Major wonders, failed.
In his favour is the ideal meeting he experienced in the hours following his three-shot win over Jordan Spieth and Lee Westwood. Sir Alex Ferguson was at the Augusta party to celebrate Willett becoming just the second Englishman ever to don the Green Jacket and after the pair joked about the former Manchester United manager losing his bet on Spieth retaining his title, the conversation turned to the serious subject of where next for the 28-year-old.
‘Fergie had a brilliant piece of advice for me,’ Willett revealed. ‘He said, “When I was at United, we never looked back on what we had achieved. We always looked forward. As soon as we win a trophy, it is forgotten about. The next morning we wake up and try to work hard to win the next trophy”.
‘For him to say that puts things back in perspective from a true winner’s point of view. It gave me an insight into what a true champion would think and that’s how I’m sure Rory [McIlroy], Jordan and Jason [Day] think. They don’t rest on their laurels.
‘They are back in the gym working hard or on the range practising, trying to make sure that when they next come out they will be competing. The way I see it, I’m world No 9 so there’s eight more steps to go. I have self-belief, I work incredibly hard and my ambition in my own mind has always been to be world No .
‘Augusta obviously gave me more belief that I can do it. You strive for perfection every time you practise, every time you play. But to be able to get there you need to win big tournaments, such as The Masters.
‘I guess this does make me part of the conversation with Jordan, Jason, Rory and Rickie [Fowler]. The game is in really good hands for the next 10 to 15 years and fortunately enough I’ll be part of it.’
It is a lucrative club to have joined with the £1.25-million first prize being just the start of a windfall expected to top £10- illion in the next few years. Lee Westwood is England’s highest-earning golfer, having amassed more than £37-million in earnings. But sports marketing expert Nigel Currie is confident Willett will go on to overtake Westwood.
‘He’s definitely set to be England’s highest-paid golfer of all time. If he never won another Major, his off-course earnings for the next year or two would be in the region up towards £5-million. That will continue or increase further if he goes on and wins other Majors,’ said Currie, the director of British sports marketing agency BrandRapport.
Willett and his manager, Chubby Chandler, are braced for many offers, but the golfer is insistent he will not be ‘compromised by the cash’. He intends to stick to his plan of joining the PGA Tour in 2017.
‘I always look at a tournament not for the money but for the World Ranking points. The Masters was worth a lot of money but to me the 100 ranking points I earned is much bigger and take me closer to where I want be in the rankings. I’m still six rankings points away from Jason and the guys up there and that is effectively three Majors. It’s going to take some brilliant results but I am trending in the right direction at least.’
Chandler does not expect him to wallow in the adulation. ‘He knows exactly how many Majors Rory has won and Danny will want to get up there and past his tally,’ Chandler said. ‘If you take Tiger Woods out, what is the next best tally of Majors of the current players – five [by Phil Mickelson]? No matter, at the end of the day Danny can become one of the greats of his time. He won’t be distracted. He knows exactly what he’s trying to do and working towards. Winning The Masters is the start of the journey, not the end.’
Chandler credits Willett’s father for the mental resolve he showed down the stretch on Sunday. A retired Church of England vicar, Steve Willett is his son’s closest confidante, although, in truth, Willett never has been the type to back down. If the golf world was reminded of this when he so boldly stared down Luke Donald at Sun City in 2014, then it first experienced the competitive psyche at the 2007 Amateur Championship. Everyone at Lytham knew all about his opponent – a teenager named McIlroy – but few had heard of Willett. Within six holes Willett was five up, eventually winning on the 17th.
An English Amateur Championship followed, as well as a place alongside McIlroy at the 2007 Walker Cup, and when he turned professional the next May he was ranked the No 1 amateur in the world. Eight top-10s in his first European Tour season only underlined his rich promise.
But then, a few years down the line, with the BMW International title ready to thrust him into the elite, his lower back began to ache. The complaint was traced back to an accident he had on a sledge as a nine-year-old and was to blight his entire 2013 and the first half of 2014. Willett is still in managing mode. ‘I’m not 100%, but it’s massively improved,’ he said. ‘Physically it hurt, but mentally was the killer. When you know you’re swinging quite well, supposedly in your prime, and the body won’t let you rotate. It did hold me back and I feel I’m now in the position I should have been a couple of years ago.’
Where he happens to be, he is not entirely comfortable with. It all changed when he flew black to Britain. If the comparisons with Lionel Messi at Manchester Airport did not inform him he had been elevated to a new level of sporting fame or, indeed, the paparazzi who ‘sat outside my house waiting for me to take the bins out’, then final confirmation came from the PGA Tour.
Willett was slightly shocked to wake on Tuesday to find out he had joined the American circuit, as displayed all over the front page of its website. In truth, he had yet to sign the forms to make it official. But the Tour’s haste to announce its capture underlined its desire to have The Masters champion as a member.
No rules were broken, or even bent for Willett, but the upshot was he has been given a shot at the $10-million (£6.9-million) bonus at the Tour Championship in September. And despite the fact he was intending to join the Tour next year anyway – and so split his time between there and the European Tour he so cherishes – thing were happening at a whirlwind pace.
Except, Willett spent the first few weeks just trying to adjust to his dramatically altered life in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham, which had, inevitably, been granted further ecstatic disruption with the arrival of his baby son, Zachariah, the week before The Masters. Sitting down at Rotherham Golf Club, overlooking the course which honed his talents as a teenager, Willett’s eyes portrayed those of a sleep-deprived father, not to mention a recently-crowned Major winner.
‘We’re getting a couple of hours [of sleep] a night,’ he said. ‘Changing nappies, early-hour feeds. It’s just back to normal life, really. Although my biggest taste of reality was at Meadowhall [shopping centre]. Zach peed on my leg while I was feeding him. Sitting outside Boots while [his wife] Nicole’s in there, he went all the way through his nappy, through his vest and on to my jeans. That’s a really good look.’
And believe it, people were looking. Intently. ‘The airport was bonkers. The staff there said they’d not seen that many press since Messi and Barcelona came over,’ Willett said. ‘And then there was the “pap” outside the house. That must be the most boring job in the world, sat there waiting for me to put the bins out. I think they were trying to get a picture of the little man and Nic. That’s why I did a photo-shoot with Nic and Zach, so we could return to some form of reality and not have to get us a bodyguard out all week.’
Willett is not the first supposedly ‘overnight’ sporting success to struggle with the flip side of transcending the borders of celebrity. He was one of them, but he has discovered they think rather more of him now. ‘That’s the most difficult thing, normal things aren’t so normal any more,’ he said.
‘People want a picture, you go out for dinner with Nic and people want an autograph. At a tournament, you appreciate that you sign for fans, you meet the sponsors; that’s part and parcel of what you do, that’s our business. But when it leaks into normal home life, that’s one of the things I’m going to have to get better at.
“I can see why a lot of the top athletes go into hibernation, behind closed doors, it’s very invasive. But then, five years ago, if Tiger [Woods] had walked past me, I’d have asked for a picture. That’s just our nature as humans.’
Willett has plainly been in transition mode. If possible, he must accept the hero worship and then dismiss its relevance. At least he has finally waded through that mass of congratulations notes.
‘I’ve had lots from great people from around the world and I’m not going to name-drop them all,’ he said. ‘But Rory’s [McIlroy] meant a great deal. He is an inspiration to me, the manner in which he won his first and then followed it up with his second, third and fourth. It’s head down and carry on.’
END OF YEAR RANKING
2012 BMW International Open
2014 Nedbank Golf Challenge
2015 European Masters
2016 The Masters, Dubai Desert Classic