Danny Willett, the Next Euro Ryder Cup Thorn in Old Glory's Side?
Who is this Danny Willett? Who is this fidgety, wiry, speed-talking 28-year-old who walks the fairways of the world as if he owns them? Who is this flinty-eyed, tattooed, sand-iron virtuoso who chased Rory McIlroy to the tape in last year's Race to Dubai and hung with the superstars at last week's WGC-Cadillac Championship? Seriously, who is this guy?
"He's a Yorkshireman," Paul Farquharson said last Saturday as he watched Willett hit balls on the Trump National Doral practice range before the third round of the Cadillac. "Yorkshiremen are very down to earth, very street-wise. I wouldn't say Danny comes from a tough background, but he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth."
Farquharson is Willett's trainer. A few feet away, Martin Hardy, Willett's manager, was offering up his own opinion: "Danny's a bouncy guy, energetic. He's got a very strong gait. But he's not a braggart in any way. He's a down-to-earth, fully focused professional."
It's unusual, outside of horse racing, to praise an athlete's gait, but Willett's upright, purposeful stride does stand out. As for energetic—oh, yeah. His preshot routine is a symphony of quick, tiny gestures—sleeve tugs, adjustments to his hat and glove, a few quick squeezes of a towel, hurried practice swings of varying lengths. He's just as busy over the ball, shifting his weight, gripping and regripping the club, making numerous fast waggles until—whoosh!—his swing takes off like a bottle rocket.
Much as his career has. Last year Willett left a faint impression on American eyeballs by finishing third (3 and 2 over Jim Furyk in the consolation match) at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and tying for sixth at the Open Championship at St. Andrews. The week after the Open he won the European Masters in Switzerland for his third European tour title. In January he won the victory-clinching match for Europe in the EurAsia Cup, and last month he took the Dubai Desert Classic by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. And there he was on Sunday at Doral, charging into a back-nine shootout with a Hall of Famer (Phil Mickelson), a two-time Masters champion (Bubba Watson), a winner of 27 professional tournaments (Adam Scott) and a four-time major champ (Rory McIlroy).
"I think he might be the best thing I've seen out of the U.K. since Rory," NBC's David Feherty said last week on his way through the grandiose lobby at Trump Doral. "He's got a magnificent swing and a great attitude. There's a little evil in him—and I mean that in the best way."
An even better measure of Willett's impending stardom was the surprise manifestation of Hall of Famer Johnny Miller on the Doral range. NBC's brilliant but acerbic analyst is generally loath to mingle with the players he critiques, but there he was on Saturday morning, chatting with Jonathan Smart, Willett's caddie, while closely observing the Yorkshireman's technique.
Willett didn't seem to notice.
Nor does he seem to care if he gets much attention for his run to No. 11 in the World Golf Ranking. "I don't mind if people don't talk about me," he said after a first-round 68 on Doral's Blue Monster. "It's nice to be under the radar, not to be in the limelight all the time. But it's business, it's part of the job, and that's all right." He spoke those words, incidentally, in the time it takes a toddler's scoop of ice cream to slide off the cone and hit the ground.
Pressed to say something more, Willett allowed that his good play in World Golf Championship events could lead to genuine fame. He said, "You'reatthestagenowtheoretically ... " Sorry, let's slow that down and correct for the Yorkshire accent. He said, "You're at the stage now, theoretically, where you should be up there and contending in the majors and the team events. It's just trying to not go backwards and staying as healthy as you can, which is a big thing with me."
Is speaking in the second person another Yorkshire thing? Because if it is, we're tempted to paraphrase Feherty and call Willett the best thing to come out of Yorkshire since ferret legging. But just when you've got him pegged as a twitchy, type A personality, Willett plays the sensitive-husband card. As in, "I'm looking forward to Augusta, if I get to go play."
The if in that remark, delivered to an audience of reporters early last week, was Willett's vow to skip the Masters, if necessary, to be with his wife, Nicole, when she delivers their first child, a boy, back home in Sheffield. "Nic's due that week, so it all depends on how our little man is faring," said Willett, who was 38th in his Masters debut last year. "If he fancies coming out early on, it would be great. But if not, I won't be playing." And then, the cheeky bit: "There's plenty more Masters." He said this, of course, in the time it takes an unknotted balloon to dart about and hit the wall.
Americans who Google Danny Willett won't learn much about him. He was born in Sheffield, the famous steel town. His mother is a "maths teacher." His father is a vicar in the Church of England. He played two seasons of Stateside golf for Jacksonville (Ala.) State. He won the 2007 English Amateur, contributed three points for the British and Irish at the '07 Walker Cup and somehow wound up as the world's top-ranked amateur before turning pro in '08. Useful information, but it does little to explain why Willett's Euro tour peers see him as a potential rival to the Big Three—all eight of 'em.
Maybe you have to have lost to him. Matthew Fitzpatrick, an even-younger Sheffield-born tour pro and the 2013 U.S. Amateur champion, was runner-up to Willett at the European Masters. "Danny's a very professional golfer," Fitzpatrick said in Miami, emphasizing the adjective. "That's the best way to describe him. If Danny's got a gym date at 3:45, he's in the gym at 3:15, warming up." Speaking for management, Hardy made the identical point. "Danny's determined to get everything out of what natural ability he's been given. If it takes him to No. 1, fine."
It just might. Willett is projected to represent Great Britain at the Rio Olympics, and he's a near certainty to play for the European Ryder Cup team in the fall. And just to prove that he's not looking ahead, he hung in at the Cadillac until the very end. Trailing leader Scott by a stroke, the Yorkshireman made a pudding of Doral's treacherous 18th hole, pulling his drive into the water, scrambling for bogey and finishing tied for third with McIlroy.
If Willett was discouraged, he didn't let on. "I'm sorry to lose by one or two," he said behind the 18th grandstand, "but it's trending in the right direction. You give yourself a chance, and sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don't."
He said this, if you're curious, in the time it takes a golf star to be born.