One year ago, Englishman Danny Willett was 36th in the world and still enjoying the fruits of his 2014 Nedbank Golf Challenge victory. This week he tees up at Oakmont Country Club as a completely different person – he’s a father, world number nine, and the reigning Masters champion.
In 2015, the Sheffield-born golfer recorded seven top-10’s on the European Tour, including one in the Open Championship at St. Andrews. This was promptly followed up with a win in picturesque Switzerland at the Omega European Masters.
Willett finished the year ranked second in the Race to Dubai after sharing fourth place at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. He had climbed from 50th to 19th in the world by the time he defended his title at the Gary Player Country Club last November, where he finished tied-fourth.
He picked up a victory at the 2016 Dubai Desert Classic and then began to show his mettle across the pond with a tie for third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He backed up that top-five with a share of 22nd at the Valspar Championship.
Willett’s wife Nicole, who was due to give birth to their first child on the final day of the Masters, unexpectedly went into labour a week early. Despite being on nappy duty, the Englishman’s wife pushed him to go and play and he arrived at Augusta National as a new father. The decision would shape Willett’s career forever.
A solid first three rounds at Augusta saw the current world number nine at even-par going into the final round. A flawless Sunday round of 67, coupled with Jordan Spieth’s meltdown, gave Willett his maiden major as he came from three shots behind.
Willett’s best finish at the US Open was a tie for 45th at Pinehurst Resort in 2014, while he missed the cut last year at Chambers Bay. Oakmont will reveal how far his game has come since then.
Failure to make fairways will put any golfer on the back foot immediately. Willett ranks fourth in stroke average on the European Tour this season, but is a lowly 127th in driving accuracy. If the Sheffield-born golfer performs as his statistics suggest, he will struggle given the brutal rough that lies in wait.
The Englishman ranks 38th in putts per round on the European Tour, which will need improvement on the notorious greens in Pennsylvania this week.
Willett will be under no illusion that Oakmont presents vastly different (and much tougher) test than Augusta and even making the cut will be an achievement. He is a vastly different golfer from a year ago, and has a chance to prove it this week.