Danny Willett and the English Renaissance
Post by Golf Writer Kieran Clark
With the media narrative understandably being so keenly focused on the “big three” of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy coming into the week, the prospect of the 80th Masters ushering in something of a renaissance for English golf would have been viewed as one of the most unlikely storylines. But that is exactly what happened down Magnolia Lane.
Danny Willett capped off a life-changing fortnight, with the new father claiming the Green Jacket in brilliant fashion, while young Matt Fitzpatrick completed his first major as a pro in a tie for seventh. They will carry the mantle forward, but it was the meeting of two generations that proved most encouraging, with Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Justin Rose all finishing inside the top ten.
Those three older players – in addition to the absent Luke Donald and distant Ian Poulter – were long considered a “golden generation” of English golfers. And in many ways, it has been. They have played a pivotal role in Europe’s continued domination of the Ryder Cup during this century, reached the summit of the world rankings, and clinched a U.S. Open in the case of Rose.
But the Masters was always the most tantalising of prizes. Having grown up watching the likes of Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, and Sir Nick Faldo triumphantly putting on the Green Jacket as the midnight hour approached, a generation of youngsters were inspired by watching one of their own be successful on the most immaculate of stages. The likes of Casey and Rose were among them. There has always been a romantic element to Augusta National for British golfers.
They all had chances to follow in those footsteps and grasp the opportunity for themselves, but it has been a long wait for another champion, two decades on from Faldo’s third victory. Ultimately, it wasn’t the golden generation, but a member of the new regiment who ended that lengthy drought.
The 28-year-old from Sheffield – just the third Masters champion to shoot a final round of 67 or better – produced one of the most accomplished Sunday performances in the 82 year history of the game’s most iconic major championship. Assured, fearless, and simply masterful.
It was the culmination of a steadily impressive rise, coming in the aftermath of back problems that blighted his early career. Dedicated and hard-working, Willett has long been considered among the most focussed practisers on the European Tour, paying attention to both the nutritional and mental sides that are considered to be vital aspects to the game at the highest level these days.
This has all contributed to the transformation in the fortunes of a player who was ranked a comparatively lowly 136th less than two years ago. Starting with a win at the lucrative Nedbank Challenge in the December of 2014, it has been an upwards trajectory for Willett. He carried that into an impressive showing at last year’s WGC World Match Play, before adding the historic Omega European Masters just a week after contending at St. Andrews in the Open Championship.
He also finished third and fourth at the WGC HSBC Champions and DP World Tour Championship, which took him into this year with a foundation of increasing confidence to elevate himself from. The Dubai Desert Classic was – till now – his biggest victory, taking him up at 13th in the world. An impressive near-miss at Doral last month was another sign of things to come, despite the prospect of becoming a dad hanging over his potential chances at Augusta.
Danny’s wife, Nicole, had been due to give birth on the Sunday of the Masters, which would have jeopardised his participation in the tournament. But in the interests of good timing, baby Zachariah was born 11 days ago, allowing his grateful father the chance to make history across the pond.
She has been instrumental to his success, as has the invaluable guidance from Chubby Chandler of ISM, and the coaching of Pete Cowen and Mike Walker. “I've got massive thanks for everything that she does for me. You know, take this little green jacket back for her,” said Willett.
Headlines will naturally pay attention to the sudden and gut-wrenching collapse from defending Jordan Spieth on the 12th hole, but Willett put himself in a position to capitalise on any mistake from above on the leaderboard. He was the one player in contention who managed to finish the round off solidly, which was particularly impressive after having unexpectedly found himself at the summit.
The whole experience was perhaps made easier to handle playing alongside Lee Westwood and his experienced caddie Billy Foster, who Willett both considers to be friends. “I couldn't have asked for a better pairing, really, for a Sunday in a major when you're both in contention. We both played some great golf,” added the champion.
The Masters Tournament has always been defined as a convergence of the old and new. Starting the week, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and an ailing Arnold Palmer poignantly kicked the event off, while 66-year-old Tom Watson bowed out of Augusta just as new stars were rising. The same can be said of that defining pairing with Willett and Westwood. It brought the two generations together.
For the 42-year-old, there was sense that maybe when it was least expected, he would finally clinch a major championship victory. Chipping-in for eagle on the 15th, just as Spieth succumbed to disaster, the runner-up to Phil Mickelson in 2010 had an opening to go that one vital step further, but found it abruptly shut by the birdie of his playing partner on the subsequent hole.
But it was an uplifting week for the former world number one, a performance that recalibrates his career in an upwards direction. It has been a tumultuous period for the Worksop-native, but this past week is a reminder of what he remains capable of, and what he could still produce in the future. With the Ryder Cup fast approaching, Darren Clarke will be pleased to see his friend back to form.
Young Matt Fitzpatrick – who memorably won the U.S. Amateur two years ago – shot a final round of 67 to finish in a tie for seventh in his first major as a professional. Winner of the British Masters in October, like Willett, the 21-year-old has an impressively solid all-round game, which could see him as a potential contender in the near future. The majors could be kind to the Yorkshireman.
For Paul Casey, 38, and Justin Rose, 35, perhaps the two most technically gifted of the golden generation, it was a week that served as a further reminder that they will remain factors for a time to come and could be set to succeed Westwood as the elder statesmen of this new era.
We mustn’t forget Andy Sullivan, who won three times last year, and Chris Wood, who is still in his twenties despite having first emerged as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 2008. Their best days may be yet to come, while the likes of Tommy Fleetwood and Eddie Pepperell are still to fully realise their own significant potential. It is an exciting period for English golf. And now they have a figurehead.
The triumphs of the Brits and Europeans in the 1980s and ‘90s inspired many youngsters throughout the UK to play golf. It was their introduction to the game and what it could offer. It made them hope. And we can only hope that this English resurgence yields the same effect in the coming years.
For Danny Willett, his dreams have come true. New father, the Masters champion, and now leader of the English renaissance.
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