ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Danny Willett received a congratulatory text from his mom Elizabeth after a second-round 69 gave him a two-stroke lead early in the second round of the 144th British Open at St. Andrews.
“Well done,” she wrote. “You made the cut.”
The writers in the interview room cracked up laughing as Willett recounted the exchange. “That’s my mum,” he said with a rueful smile. “God love her. Always bringing me back down to earth.”
An English golfer has not won the British Open since Nick Faldo in 1992, and fans seemed to sense history in the making as Willett, 27, of Sheffield, England, walked off the 10th tee at the Old Course.
“C’mon, Danny!” they shouted, their exhortations carried on the wind toward the North Sea.
Willett had just birdied the par-4 ninth hole. Amid the throngs of vocal fans who filled the grandstands he birdied the 10th, too, to get to 10-under par, three ahead of Dustin Johnson, who had yet to begin his round.
Meanwhile, American fans could be forgiven for asking: Who is Danny Willett? And if he’s so great why hadn’t he contended at a major?
The short answer to that last question is he’s fought back problems, especially in 2013 but also in February of this year, when he withdrew from the Malaysian Open after going 3-over for his first 12 holes. On Friday he woke up at 5 a.m. to do his usual back exercises in his hotel room. Upon arriving at the Old Course for his tee time, he saw that, as Paddy Harrington would put it, “The town of St. Andrews drained into the first fairway.”
Willett went back to the hotel to lie down some more as he waited out the three-plus-hour rain delay, but he is nothing if not adaptive. He played two seasons for Jacksonville State University in Alabama, and matched Zach Johnson’s 66 in the worst of the wind Thursday. Friday’s lengthy delay did not bother Willett, either, as he kept making birdies in marginally calmer conditions, or what he said was, “A good wind for St. Andrews.”
A front-nine 33 got him to 10 under, and he hung on for dear life on the back. After a tough bogey at the brutal Road Hole (his par putt lipping out) Willett birdied the short, par-4 finishing hole for a 69.
At 9-under he was two clear of Zach Johnson (71), Scotland’s Marc Warren (69), Adam Scott (67) and Dustin Johnson, who hadn’t yet begun round two and would have no hope of completing it Friday.
“It’s a little bit surreal,” Willett said of his 36-hole lead. “But I’m going to have to get used to it, otherwise there’s no point in being up there.”
Before this week the best measure of how good Willett is when he’s healthy was the WGC-Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park, in May. The tournament was a coming-out party of sorts for three English golfers, Tommy Fleetwood, Andy Sullivan and Willett, all of whom advanced to the tournament’s knockout stage. Willett was the class of the three.
The son of a vicar and a math teacher, and the former English Amateur champion and former No. 1-ranked amateur, Willett beat match-play specialist Patrick Reed early in the week, edged countryman Sullivan, and bloodlessly dispatched fellow Brit Lee Westwood, with whom he’d shared dinners all week in San Francisco. Willett finally succumbed to Gary Woodland in the semifinals, losing 3 and 2 before thumping Jim Furyk in the consolation match to claim third-place money and World Ranking points.
And now Danny Willett is beating them all at St. Andrews.