Danny Boy puts 2 years pain behind him with Dubai victory
WHAT a story! Danny Willett, who only just sneaked into the field for the Dubai World Tour championship and had actually entered the RSM Classic on the PGA Tour, put more than two years of misery behind him to fend off the challenge of 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed and claim his first title since that famous April day in 2016 when he won the Green Jacket.
The Yorkshireman would be the first to admit that he struggled to cope with the demands that came with winning his first major. He lost his game and, worse than that, he suffered months of back pain. He should have taken time off, put his feet up and recovered. Instead, he continued playing, missing cut after cut as his world ranking began to tumble. He missed out on the Ryder Cup, he missed out on WGC tournaments, he sacked his coach and his caddie. But through it all he was sustained by his family and he never once doubted that he would eventually come out the other side.
It has been a long and painful struggle, but Willett is back. And if you are going to win your first tournament in a while then why not make it the end-of-season shindig, with a huge prize fund at stake and a field comprising the best 60 golfers on the European Tour? Willett began the day tied for the lead with Reed after rounds of 67, 67 and 68. Most onlookers expected him to struggle. Not a bit of it.
Reed dropped a shot at the first and when Willett produced a sparkling eagle at the par-five second he suddenly found himself leading the tournament by three shots. A birdie at the seventh and a Reed bogey at the eighth meant that by the time they reached the turn Willett was an astonishing five shots ahead of his playing partner.
Of course, Reed wasn’t finished yet. This is one of the most determined golfers on the planet, a man who never knows when he is beaten. He birdied the 10th and 11th and with Willett dropping shots at the 10th and 12th, suddenly we had a contest on our hands again. Was it going to prove to be all too much for Willett? With his lead down to a single shot, he matched Reed’s birdies at the 14th and 15th holes to move to 17 under par. They both parred the 16th and headed for the final two holes with the Englishman leading by one.
By now, Reed had been joined by Matt Wallace, looking for the fourth victory of an extraordinary season. Wallace was incredibly unfortunate to miss out on a Ryder Cup wild card, but this is a year that he will not forget in a hurry. He had been right in the mix for 36 holes before a poor third round. But the Englishman knows only one way to play this game and announced before he set off that he was going to attack and see where it got him. His only dropped shot came at the third, but he also managed four birdies, including one at the last hole. He then had to sit back and see whether he had done enough.
Spain’s Jon Rahm, who won this title last year, put up a stout defence. He finished the week with a 68 for a 14-under-par total and a share of fourth place with South Africa’s Dean Burmester and fellow Spaniard Adrian Otaegui, who closed with a 69. Otaegui has had an incredible season. This was the 25-year-old’ 11th top-10 finish, and he also won the Belgian Knockout.
But the week belongs to Willett, who victory surely represents the comeback story of 2018, notwithstanding Lee Westwood’s victory at the Nedbank Challenge. Westwood may have gone four years without a win, but he has come nowhere close to enduring the sort of slump in form and fitness endured by Willett, who must have days when he has asked himself: “Why me?”
And he could hardly believe his luck when Reed dropped a shot at the 17th as he birdied the same hole. Incredibly, Willett strolled off to the final hole leading Wallace by two and Reed by three. The American birdied the final hole and when Willett made a routine par he had won by two.
Willett began the week in 53rd place in the Race to Dubai and 276th in the world rankings, having been as low as 462nd. This victory sees him finish in 20th place in the Race to Dubai and will take him back into the top 100 in the world rankings, and the only way now is surely up. He missed five of his first seven cuts this season but a tie for eighth at the Italian Open ignited his campaign and two more Rolex Series top tens were to follow before he claimed European Tour title number six on the Earth Course. “It's been a lot of hard work,” said an emotional Willett. “It's been tough. I'm just massively proud of myself and everyone that's been around me. You never quite know when a win is around the corner and with all the things that have happened, I was never quite sure if it was going to happen again.
“To happen here at the end of year, we've battled long and hard through this season to come out at the end, regardless of what happened today, a better person and a better athlete. It's a special place. It's been a hell of a lot of work and it's just nice to be back.”
The other issue to be decided here was the confirmation that Open champion Francesco Molinari finished the season as well-deserved winner of the Race to Dubai. Tommy Fleetwood, his nearest rival, needed to win the tournament and hope that the Italian finished no better than tied for 16th. Fleetwood looked like he might just make a successful defence of his Race to Dubai crown during the first two rounds but then, by his own admission, he simply ran out of steam. He has played a lot of golf in 2018 and hit the marathon runner’s equivalent off the wall, with a third round of 74. Ut is to his eternal credit that he battled back to finish with a 68, but it left him in 16th place and wasn’t good enough. Molinari finished on six under for the week, four behind Fleetwood.
The Italian was thrilled. “It's incredible,” he said. “Now I'm going to have time to sit down and relax and really think back about the last few months. This morning on the first tee the announcement is the winner of The Open Championship, Race to Dubai leader, it doesn't sound real at the moment. It's more than I ever dreamed of achieving. I've seen guys that I think are better players than me not winning Majors and not winning Order of Merits or Race to Dubais. To achieve those things in one single season is just incredible.
“We've been doing very well this year when it comes to the challenges. I never won a Ryder Cup match and I won five out of five. Carnoustie was really not my favourite place, to say the least, before this year, and I go there and win. It's tough in a way because it would have been probably easier in a way to play against anyone else but Tommy. I know how talented he is and I really thought at some point he was going to win it and put me in a tough spot. He's obviously a great guy and a super talented player and I'm sure being younger than me, he's going to win a few more Race to Dubais.”
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