Danny Willett has admitted his Dubai Desert Classic triumph played a massive role in winning the Masters earlier this month.
The 28-year-old Willett became the first European champion at Augusta National in 17 years and only the second Englishman to get a Green Jacket after Nick Faldo.
Just two months ago, he thought he had landed the biggest prize of his career in Dubai. Now it ranks second, but the significance of that success at Emirates Golf Club cannot be overstated in his fairy-tale rise to prominence.
A career-defining fourth win on the European Tour, since turning professional in 2008, was dramatic.
After Rory McIlroy had fallen short in a late charge for glory, Rafa Cabrera-Bello birdied the last and Andy Sullivan completed his final round with a birdie-birdie finish. Willett was left with a 15-foot birdie putt to avoid a three-way play-off.
He held his nerve to sink it, and that same courage and composure helped him at Augusta National with a bogey-free final round of 67, perfect after favourite Jordan Spieth lost a five-shot lead with a horrific quadruple bogey at the 12th hole.
“I can see it, the Dubai win being significant to the Masters,” Willett told Sport360 exclusively. “Me and (manager) Chubby (Chandler) spoke quite a lot about that.
“The tournaments I had won before Dubai, I won Nedbank Challenge by four shots, then Omega European Masters I won by one in the end, but I was in control.
To my gorgeous wife @Nicolewillett88 and zach!!! Still can't believe what has happened!!! Masters champion 2016!!! Wow!! ??????????— Danny Willett (@Danny_Willett) April 11, 2016
“The BMW International before that (in 2012) was a four-hole play-off. Dubai, though, was where there were a lot of very good players nipping around all week and I actually won that golf tournament.
“I didn’t go down to the last with a lead. I went down tied and had to make birdie to win. The difference in doing that was massive. It was big for me in terms of confidence, belief and things progressing. It played a massive part in me going on to win the Masters.
“It gives you the belief that in that sort of situation, can I dig down? Can I keep my mind clear and can I perform certain tasks? And the answer was yes.”
Now world No. 9, he will have to face more challenges, aware that his Masters achievement will lead to greater pressure and expectations.
But it also confirmed Willett’s faith in his ability, his progress hindered by back problems.
From being ranked world No. 102, impressive displays last year saw him go into the season-ending DP World Tour Championship event second behind McIlroy in the Race to Dubai standings. The Northern Irishman won the event to finish as Europe’s No. 1 ahead of Willett.
Now the leader, Willett admits the Race to Dubai title is among his season’s targets, along with representing Great Britain when golf returns to the Olympics, and making his debut in the Ryder Cup.
“I’ve got targets, the Race to Dubai is one,” he adds. “But all I can keep doing is playing good golf. Looking at it now, I’m probably going to be in a fortunate position going into it to do well.
“It hurt to miss out last year, but it was better than being miles back. If someone had said you would be a thousand Euros behind Rory going into the Race to Dubai final event and you would finish fourth, I’d have taken that. He was great that week and I was still proud and pleased with how everything panned out last year.”
But this promises to be Willett’s year and he is ready to take on anyone, be it Spieth, McIlroy or Jason Day. He would even relish the return and challenge of his golfing hero, Tiger Woods.
“Tiger changed the game for all of us and made us all work that bit harder in the gym, and look at all the different aspects of how you can get that little bit better every time. He’s been a massive inspiration,” says Willett.
So too tennis legend Roger Federer and snooker’s magical five- time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan. Willett is an admirer of their class and consistency. It is what he strives for himself.
“You look at the ones I admire the most, Ronnie, Tiger and Roger, and it’s what they have done,” he adds.
“They have changed the goalposts in their sports massively. Ronnie changed snooker with how he plays, the flair and the speed in which he plays and the fact that he is just a genius on the snooker table.
“Federer…how many tournaments he has won and how he has kept going for so long because he has kept his mind and body in good shape.
“And then Tiger is just….awesome. He is still, in my eyes, the greatest player that ever played.”
The Ryder Cup is several months away, but captain Darren Clarke would do well to ask the team tailor to measure out Danny Willett and Andy Sullivan. With their performance in the Dubai Desert Classic, these two have proven once again that they would be great fits for the European team uniform.
Not only do they seem a shoo-in for selection – Willett is ranked 20th in the world and expected to move to inside the top-15 after his win at Emirates Golf Club on Sunday, while Sullivan is up to 37 and improving each week – they also appear to have the perfect attitude for a competition that is as unique and as passion-filled as the Ryder Cup.
In this win, and his dogged pursuit of Rory McIlroy throughout the 2015 season, Willett has shown time and again he is like a pitbull terrier – he never lets go. That’s an amazing trait for any Ryder Cup star to have.
At the 2015 DP World Tour Championship, Willett had every reason to be peeved with the situation he was in.
The European Tour No. 1 crown, going by the letter of the law, should have been his by that time. Rory McIlroy, who was leading the Race to Dubai, was not in line to play the DP World Tour Championship because he had not played the mandatory number of events before that.
But the Tour, as a special case, permitted McIlroy to tee up in Dubai despite playing one event less. The decision may seem fair – especially as McIlroy had missed out on three tournaments that would have counted towards the Race to Dubai because of his injury – but it was unprecedented, and Willett was the one to lose the most.
It wasn’t just the financial loss – which was immense (just the difference in the bonus pool distribution for finishing first and second was $875,000) – but also the fact that he will have to wait to be called the European No. 1. But Willett has smiled through it all, and battled hard with McIlroy at Jumeirah Golf Estates before the Northern Irishman pulled away on the final day.
Sullivan is a similar character when it comes to perseverance, but is even more useful in the team room because there is never a dull moment when he is around. A compulsive talker, the man from Nuneaton honestly believes he is living the dream.
He was taking care of the inventory in an Asda shop less than five years ago, and today, he is mixing with the finest names in golf and making millions. What’s there about life that is not worth celebrating?
And he may be the best putter amongst the current crop of Europeans. There is nobody, not even Ian Poulter, who can make better clutch putts than Sullivan right now.
While the performance of these two players, who will be making their Ryder Cup debut if they qualify for Hazeltine, will surely delight Clarke, he will be concerned over the forms of veterans Poulter and Lee Westwood, and to a certain extent Graeme McDowell.
All three missed the cut in the events they played last week. While they do have a lot of time to find their touch, it is extremely important that experienced players like them also make it to the team on their own.
Clarke has just three captain’s picks and he should not find himself in a position where he has to make obvious choices.
Danny Willett admitted winning his first Dubai Desert Classic felt “extra special” as he had to make one last pressure-packed putt on the 72nd hole of the tournament to edge ahead of his rivals.
Willett made no mistake in sending the 15-feet effort into the centre of the cup and while heaving a sigh of relief on securing his fourth European Tour title, the 28-year-old Briton said there was no better way to win a golf tournament.
“It is the best way to win. You’d love to win by five or six every time you win, but when you win in that fashion, it does feel that little bit extra special. When the pressure is on, being able to produce the goods is special, I guess,” said Willett.
“It’s obviously a relatively daunting last hole. We needed to make a four or a five to win. So just delighted with how I dug in and obviously found it.
“I am just ecstatic. What it’s like coming down the back nine, or the back three, in contention of a golf tournament, you really can’t buy that feeling. You’ve got to earn it.”
Willett had finished second to Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai last year after a battle that stretched into the last round of the season. This win, in a field that featured McIlroy, will help him go for another tilt at the title held by the world No. 2, that of being the European No. 1 player for winning the Race to Dubai.
“I think any year where you can be in and around the top-10 all year and give yourself a chance come the Final Series to win the Order of Merit, is brilliant,” added Willett. “It’s still early days to talk about the Race to Dubai. But yeah, we’ve certainly put ourselves nicely up there to fight for the top again.
“I think once you get that feel of how it was last year and how it felt to be in and around it that whole week in Dubai and how it felt to not pull it off…yeah, it would be good.”