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.”
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