ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Danny Willett has 2½ months to rediscover his game before making a pressure-filled return to Augusta National as the defending Masters champion.
Odds are that won’t be long enough.
Willett finished 2016 in a rut after dealing with fresh levels of attention for being a major winner as well as a mid-season swing change. Following a short off-season when he sacrificed practice to enjoy a break from golf and his first Christmas as a father, his start to 2017 is hardly encouraging.
Rounds of 74 and 76 saw Willett become the biggest name to miss the cut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on Friday. He was 121st in a 126-man field, with his second round marred by a quadruple bogey 9 at the 10th when everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Next comes the defense of his Dubai Desert Classic title in two weeks. Then all roads lead to Augusta for the Masters starting April 6.
“I think if I’m playing bad, the attention will die down quite nicely, to be honest,” Willett said, when asked if the build-up to the Masters will be a hindrance.
Initially, the green jacket weighed heavily on the shoulders of Willett. Everyone wanted a piece of him after he capitalized on Jordan Spieth’s back-nine collapse to be a surprise winner of the Masters. He popped up inside Wimbledon’s Royal Box, and was a guest at the World Snooker Championship in his home city of Sheffield.
The attention died down, allowing him to return his focus to golf. But he is without a win since Augusta and has only three top-10 finishes in that eight-month period.
“At the end of last year, I was working hard and doing the right things, but it was like I was knocking my head against a brick wall,” Willett said. “I wasn’t analyzing it properly. It was all just bad. It wasn’t, but that’s how I analyzed it.”
Willett is trying not to get too down about his play in Abu Dhabi. Finishing with two birdies — and two more decent birdie chances — in his final four holes helped, but couldn’t disguise his problems in the previous 32.
His main issue was pulling lots of shots as he tried to hit a cut. That led to a triple-bogey 7 on Thursday and a quadruple-bogey 9 at the 10th hole on Friday, when he drove left into the desert, went out of bounds with his third shot, found a bunker with his fifth, and then three-putted.
Willett said he was “slightly shocked” at the contrast between his form on the range and his form on the course.
“Christmas golf-course rust,” Willett said. “All joking aside, I know there were a few horrendous scores in there, but there was some better stuff in there, too.”