EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Former Masters champion Danny Willett fighting back to where he belongs

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After winning the 2016 Masters and slipping into the magical green jacket as if it were tailored for him, Danny Willett was poised to take his place among the best players in the game.

He purred with confidence on and off the course, walked with a swagger that was reminiscent of a burgeoning Hollywood actor and had just broken into the world top 10 for the first time.

But then injuries intervened. A shoulder issue was followed by a knee problem. There was a wrist injury too and then a bad back. The hours on the range diminished and it all began to collapse around him.

From ninth in the world to 462nd in just over two years through a combination of pain and loss of form.

Those days sitting at home in Rotherham, Yorkshire were sure to come with frustrations of just wanting to play and be back to his best, but what happens on a golf course should never define him away from it as a person or family man.

After months of rehab, practicing, changing of swing coach and fitness guru, he started to find light at the end of the tunnel.

Some would say that epiphany moment came when he snapped a 953-day winless drought and won the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in November 2018. But for others, it was his thrilling victory in Wentworth two months ago that proved his class and resilience of 2016 still remained.

The 32-year-old produced an outstanding final round five-under 67 to hold off Jon Rahm for a winning score of 20-under par and cruise to his fourth Rolex Series victory.

He swung beautifully, had great rhythm in his shot selection, and looked in total control over the four days in Surrey.

Speaking to Sport360 at the Els Club on Monday, Audemars Piguet ambassador Willett said: “The win at Wentworth really was brilliant. To win on home soil with home fans there was brilliant.

“It’s one of them ones that being English, growing up watching that event on television, with the different formats that the event has been in. You always want to be up there challenging for the lead but to polish one was off was brilliant.

“We kick started a very good 12 month span by winning in Dubai last year and then kept in good form going into America and the result at Wentworth added to that.”

With the European Tour’s flagship event being the first qualifying tournament for the 2020 Ryder Cup, Willett has put himself in a strong position to be selected for a second time – after representing Europe at Hazeltine in 2016.

On the major front, the Sheffield man also impressed in 2019, despite missing his third successive cut at the Masters in Augusta. He was five over after seven holes and never recovered, signing off with a four-over par score of 148 after two rounds.

But his play improved at majors as the year went on. He was T41 at the PGA Championship in Bethpage Black, and followed it up with formidable displays at the US Open (T12) and Open Championship (T6) – his best performance since winning the Masters.

“It’s been nice this year to compete in the big events again. It’s always nice to get good results regardless of where you are playing, especially in the Majors, World Golf Championship and Rolex Series event, we put up some really stellar performances,” he said.

“It just goes to show where the game is at, being able to travel around the world, take the game to different golf courses, different competitions and get back on top to where they I feel I need to do.”

Confidence restored, it’s fantastic to see Willett enjoying his golf again and being able to compete without any troublesome injuries. Now at No28 in the world, his progress should only carry in one positive direction.

Pain free for the first time in nearly five years, he credits coach Sean Foley – who formerly worked with Tiger Woods from 2010-2014 – and fitness trainer Kevin Duffy for his resurgence.

He first teamed up with Canadian Foley at the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow when he admitted previously to feeling low on belief and trying anything to save his career.

“The work with Foles and Kevin Duffy on the movement stuff has been a big difference. I feel completely pain free over the last 12 months. That’s the first time in as long as I can remember,” he said.

“As a result, I can work a bit harder and a bit longer. You can see more gains because you are putting in the time and effort. It’s been a culmination of all that stuff and everything has fit in really nicely. Those last 12-18 months we’ve seen some good progression.”

But what is it about someone like Foley that sets him apart from the other great coaches in the game?

“He’s charismatic. He’s incredibly intelligent. We do a lot of work on TrackMan. I wanted something different to where I’m at and he’s one of the best coaches in the world. I liked what he did with Rosey (Justin Rose) and some other lads I’ve seen. To be able to work with him and as close as I have over the last two and a half years has been really good for my game,” he explained.

Walking around Jumeirah Golf Estates on Sunday, Willett glided down the fairway with that same panache of three years ago in Augusta. With results coming together nicely, there is genuine hope he can get back to that 2016 Masters winning form.

Following him for six holes of his final round, he proved competitive yet again to sign off with an impressive 69 which took him to 11 under for the tournament and saw him finish eight shots behind winner Rahm in fifth place.

Nevertheless, it was a positive way to end the year after 26 tournaments played, with plenty of big moments ahead of him in 2020.

“It was a good weekend. Going into a defence is also tricky and the expectation is always high. Fifth position against that field is a nice way to round up my season. It would have been nice to have been better but that is always the way,” he said.

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