CHASKA, Minn. — Danny Willett’s unfortunate week didn’t improve much Friday afternoon as he paced the sloping fairways of Hazeltine National in his first-ever Ryder Cup match. In the wake of his big brother Pete’s sophomoric yet scorching takedown of American golf fans, Willett knew what was coming. As he arrived on the first tee — a raucous arena that holds thousands — he wasn’t so much a golfer facing an opponent as he was a gladiator facing the lions. With no shield.
First came some unimaginative pre-game taunting: “WILL-ETT’S BRO-THER! WILL-ETT’S BRO-THER!” Then, following Willett’s formal introduction, the well-oiled gallery showered him with a throaty chorus of boos. So much for a warm Midwestern welcome.
What a drag. Poor guy just wanted to soak in his Ryder Cup debut, hang with his teammates and maybe scratch out a couple of points. Instead his brother’s satirical screed has turned the Masters champ into a modern-day Monty. From a hospitality suite by the 3rd hole an especially vocal group of fans let the Yorkshireman have it. “PEEEEE-TER,” they boomed. “PEEEEE-TER.” One member of that mob saluted Willett with a pair of middle fingers raised to the heavens.
“I think it was exactly what we thought it was going to be,” Willett said after his match, which he and Martin Kaymer lost 5 and 4 to Brandt Sndeker and Brooks Koepka. “There was a few little shouts in there, and bits and bobs, but hopefully they are all following me around so the rest of the lads can do their business.”
On the 4th tee a fan hollered an insult at Willett – which is to say at Willett’s brother via Willett — not suitable for these pages. (It involved goats.) On and on it went. On the 6th tee: “YOUR BROTHER CAN’T WRITE!” Near the 8th green: “I’VE GOT WILLETT’S BROTHER IN A HEADLOCK!” By the 9th tee: “WHOOOO’S YOUR BRO-THER? WHOOOO’S YOUR BRO-THER?”
Snedeker was unmoved by the heckling, or perhaps he just blocked it out. “I don’t think it crossed the line by any stretch,” he said after the round. Rory McIlroy, playing in the match behind Willett’s, had a different take. He said the crowds here at Hazeltine have been saltier than they were at Medinah in 2012. “It’s pretty hostile out there,” he said after he and Thomas Pieters dispatched Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar 3 and 2.
Give Willett credit. Through it all he kept his head down and played respectably. On the 1st hole, with Michael Jordan looming behind the green, Willett coolly drained a 20-foot birdie putt for an unexpected halve. At the par-4 9th, by which time he and a wholly ineffective Kaymer were already 4-down, Willett holed a 35-footer to give his side a glint of hope. Looking on from the right side of the green, Willett’s Swedish born mother, Elisabet, unleashed a Woodsian fist pump.
Willett may have looked alone out there but he wasn’t. Joining Willett’s mother in his gallery was his father, Steve, and Willett’s wife, Nicole. Even Willett’s brother was on the premises Friday — alas, not Peter, Danny’s other brother, Matthew, a firefighter who used to carry Danny’s bag.
“They were upset with the whole thing and how it came about, and obviously what’s been said,” Willett said on Thursday, speaking of his parents. “They spoke to Pete last night and had a good chat with him. I don’t exactly know what about. I’ve not fully spoken to them fully about it, so I’m not quite sure. But [they’ve been] showing their support, and that’s all I can ask.”
Surely it’s been a difficult few days for the whole family. “It has been, yes,” Nicole allowed on the 7th hole of her hubby’s four-ball match.
Things are unlikely to get much easier for Willett on Saturday, assuming Darren Clarke trots him back out there. But whether or not he can block out the noise and find his form this weekend, Willett knows he has a strong support group behind him. “It’s not about any one person,” he said. “It’s 12 guys.”
Earlier in the week Willett called the whole mess “an unfortunate circumstance,” adding, “we’re just trying to move on now.”
It’s time U.S. fans did the same.