Danny Willett's bitter-sweet year ends with a taste of home as Masters defence looms

Paul Hayward
Willett has had an eventful time since last year's triumph - Getty Images North America

The cottage pie, Sunday roast and apple crumble may not seem important, but Danny Willett’s menu choices for the Champions’ dinner here say something about his surreal year. There was not a Gator steak or an eggplant in sight as the Augusta National Club came over all Yorkshire for a night.

Willett described his selections as “like a Sunday back home, [when] you go back and put your feet up and watch TV and probably fall asleep” - a curiously comforting and sedentary image for an athlete about to defend the green jacket. Maybe he wanted to stuff his rivals with so many calories that they all felt like collapsing on the sofa to watch basketball rather than plan his downfall.

On the golf course, where it matters, Willett has reached the end of a 12-month cycle he may be glad to see the back of, just as Jordan Spieth, who imploded on the back nine of his Sunday round last year, has said he wants to get past this year’s tournament to return to normality. Spieth aims to leave anguish behind. Willett seeks a break from the hoopla that comes with the office of Masters champion: the scrutiny and the obligatory statesman act.

This time last year, as Spieth collapsed, Willett steadied his nerve, played beautifully up the stretch and then asked his caddie as the green blazer settled on his shoulders: “What the f*** happened?”

What happened was that the son of a Church of England vicar and a Swedish maths teacher from a humdrum part of Sheffield had added a new dimension to Augusta’s usual tale of bronzed Tour citizens stepping into the Butler Cabin to be anointed. He was no Foinavon. Willett was a top-20 player who had already displayed much of the talent necessary to win a major. But his elevation at Spieth’s expense was still one of those sensational yarns that is bound to stay wrapped round the hero for months afterwards - potentially to his cost.

Willett will be defending his green jacket at Augusta  Credit: AFP

In his game, Willett has not returned to those heights, but has kept his sense of humour, and perspective. Would the Augusta chef be versed in cooking Yorkshire pudding? “He'd best be, otherwise I'll be in the kitchen making sure,” Willett said. “If they go a bit flat, we're not going to be happy.”

Nor he is hiding from questions about the extra ‘pressure' of being Masters champion. “I tried to make a pact to myself not to [feel it], but it's difficult,” he says. “You've achieved the greatest height in your game. You’ve got to the pinnacle. You've climbed Everest and you've put your flag in. Unfortunately, you've got to either climb down or stay up there, and it's incredibly difficult to stay up there all the time.

“The pressure has obviously been more from myself.  You get a little bit of outward pressure. We're on the first tee on Thursday morning and there's millions of people watching, and if you don't hit it good, a million people see you hit it poorly, and it's not nice. It's not a nice feeling to not hit good golf shots when you know what you can do.

“So I think the pressure has been slightly different, and my game has obviously not been as good as I wanted it to be these last 12 months. I’ve always said, as long as the work ethic stays good, you keep ticking your boxes, then it's only a matter of time.  Unfortunately, it's not kind of dropped into place yet but I'm still only 29 years old and I've got a long career.”

Willett has talked in the build-up about his “racing heart” and “shaking hands” when the chance arose to exploit Spieth’s quadruple bogey seven at the 12th hole. The new champion looked serene as he added a Masters title to the birth of his first child two weeks previously. The image, though, was deceptive. Emotional storms were crashing around his brain, as they would be for any unheralded challenger. Naturally Willett is now drawing on those memories to drive his return to title-winning form.

He says: “Achieving what I achieved last year, and performing under the pressure that I did on Sunday, you come away and if you don't do that every time you get a bit annoyed. You feel like you should be able to. You've done it once - why can't you do it every time you play? That's where the game jumps up and bites you. It's not that easy. You can't just do it week‑in and week‑out.  There's a few men that have been able to do it over the years, but they are few and far between.”

Credit: getty images

Sensibly, he is making sure he enjoys the sensations, the touch and feel of his return to this plutocrats’ Arcadia: “Coming back Saturday, we drove down Magnolia Lane and we came and just walked about nine holes and hit a few shots, and it was really nice. It was calm and there was nobody here. There were maybe 20 members and a couple of pros playing. It was nice and serene to walk around. We dropped a few balls down where we hit [good shots last year]. The chip on 17, and a couple other shots we hit.”

For the Yorkshire feast, Willett said he he would relish being “in a room with 32 major champions, some of whom have won a countless number. You're in and around greatness.  You're sat in a room there with the best players of all time that have ever lived.”

There are plenty of one-off champions in Masters history. To win it once bestows a lifetime’s lustre but the honour can move swiftly on. Willett is at the end of something wonderful and the start of a future without known shape. Of the jacket and the title, he says: “It's going to be a shame, potentially, if you've got to give it back on Sunday.”

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