In one of the most revealing, candid player blogs yet, Danny Willett writes about all the highs and the lows and keeping everything in perspective.
Well, where do I start? It’s been a pretty wild 18 months.
I look back at Augusta last year, how everything came together, and it was the climax of two years of very good golf. I had won twice in the run up to the Masters and got myself into the top 15 in the world and had a lot of confidence by the time Sunday afternoon rolled around.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about winning the Masters. I think about nearly every shot that week. I remember how I felt at each point throughout the week. It’s amazing how you get the same feelings on weeks when you win or do well. Clearly it’s not easy to replicate that feeling but once you’ve had them, you’ll let them go and that week in April was unforgettable to say the least.
There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about winning the Masters
What’s funny is that we, as golfers, spend so much time practicing for those moments, working on our swings, those chip shots, pressure putts, how to deal with being in contention mentally but no one ever really prepares you for what happens next, after you achieve greatness like that. Ultimately I’ll be able to look back on that day and be thankful for all that it has given me but it’s not always easier dealing with the aftermath.
Before Augusta I was a good, but ‘normal’ Tour pro. I was able to go about my business during the week, getting a practice round in, do my work and just prepare quietly for each week. After the Masters, every time I went to the range, every time I was on a putting green or in a practice round, there were cameras on you and everything’s being filmed and recorded. That magnifies everything to the nth degree. People that know me, know that I wear my heart on my sleeve and if I’m having a bad day on the course, I’ll show it and if I’m playing well and everything’s great in the world, you can tell. That’s just who I am. When the spotlight was on me constantly, I felt I had to dull that side of me down a little. It’s much harder to show some of that emotion, good or bad, when everyone’s eyes are on you.
Seeing how the media has told my story has been tough too. You try not to the read bits and bobs that are written about you, but it’s hard as you want to try and learn all you can. It’s great when things are going well but it’s difficult to read things when you’re not playing well. But the truth is very few people know the sacrifices I make to try and be the best golfer I can be. They don’t know that I’ll get up at 5.00am to get some practice in or hit the gym before my son wakes up at 6.30 and I need to help my wife with him. They don’t know that I’m still working my nuts off in the gym and on the range only to go out and shoot a 75. They think I should be able to shoot 72 just showing up for my tee time in the afternoon but it’s not that easy and there’s so much that goes on, behind-the-scenes, to get you to that first tee that it’s often easy just to rank or rate a player’s round based on the score they shoot but that’s not always how players view their craft.
Golf is a strange sport. When you’re playing well, it seems very easy but when you’re struggling it feels like all the time on the range makes no difference out on the course. That can be a hard challenge to deal with mentally, especially when you’re travelling week-to-week trying to find that form against some of the best players and toughest courses in the world. That being said I’m very lucky to have friends and family off the course that do what they can to keep my on that path to success and help put things in perspective.
I was in contention in the Race to Dubai and I just didn't want to play golf.
There’s been quite a few low points over the last few months. At the end of 2016 I was in contention in the Race to Dubai and I just didn’t want to play golf. Think about that. It’s utterly ridiculous. I had entered the HSBC Champions in China, Turkey, Nedbank and Dubai – four of the biggest tournaments of the year – and I didn’t want to play. I just didn’t feel good enough to compete.
So I had a few options. I could withdraw and pass up the chance to play in those events and a chance to win the Race to Dubai or I could play and work my butt off to try and find some form. It was hard and I didn’t play great but I finished 11th at Nedbank and ultimately finished runner-up in the Race to Dubai, for the second straight year.
After I had finished in Dubai, I just wanted to put the clubs away and take time off. I needed time off. However, earlier in the year I had committed to playing in Hong Kong two weeks after Dubai. People don’t realise just how golfer’s schedules are created and you often commit to events months ahead of time, when you’re playing well, then turn up six months later as a completely different golfer. When you win events and win Majors, sponsors and events want to sign you and up and announce that you’re coming to play. You feel an obligation to then show up and put on a show. However ahead of Hong Kong, I needed a break and put the clubs away for two weeks. I spent ten days with my family, with my feet up and tried not to even think about golf.
And what do you know, I went to Hong Kong and played well. My expectations were lower, I was refreshed mentally and I was able to play some good golf and get into contention. It was a course that suited me, it didn’t require too many drivers which had been my biggest weakness, but I actually enjoyed playing again. I only finished sixth but it gave me a big boost over the winter break that it was possible to both play well and like what I was doing again.
By the time 2017 rolled around, my goal was to build towards Augusta so that a) I was playing well and could put up a good defence; and b) I could enjoy everything that came with returning to Augusta and driving down Magnolia Lane with a green jacket on. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but the Champions Dinner on the Tuesday night was a real eye opener for me. Sitting around a table full of these legends of the game, all telling stories of Arnold Palmer and Augusta, it really inspired me and gave me the boost I needed to look for help. After Augusta, I began opening up to friends and people around me and trying to take a look at what I could do to improve. It wouldn’t be an easy few months but I still look back on that dinner and tell myself there was a reason I had a name card and a place at that table. I had earned an invitation and I often find myself remembering that meal.
Another low point came in Akron at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Firestone is a course where you have to drive the ball well, and hit it straight off the tee. Sadly, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t even hit the golf course. It’s a field with the best players in the world, you have to earn a place in the field yet I was there, looking at those fairways and not seeing a way I could hit the ball straight.
Luckily for me I had my dad out there that week. Whilst he doesn’t know everything about golf or my swing, he knows me as a person. We spoke every night that week. Not about golf or what was happening in my game but more about my character, my well-being and the lessons he had taught me growing up. He told me that I seemed unsure. I had always asked a lot of questions growing up and wanted to understand things about myself and about golf and he said I looked and seemed unsure. That’s when I decided to change coach.
The funny thing about the spotlight I’ve experienced is you eventually begin to aim it at yourself and question what it is you’re doing and whether you’re doing the right things, working in the right way, progressing to push yourself beyond what you’ve already achieved. After time, we came to the conclusion that perhaps things weren’t working as they had been with Mike (Walker) and Pete (Cowen) as they had been for the previous two years. It was a big decision to decide to change my coaches, and move to Sean Foley, but I felt like it was my best chance to get back to what I was doing so well when I achieve the success I had in 2015 and 2016.
The number of times I’ve watched clips of my final round at Augusta is ridiculous
When things weren’t going well I was always searching for answers. I’d find myself watching YouTube videos. The number of times I’ve watched clips of my final round at Augusta is ridiculous but I’m always looking for those keys to getting better. I found I was watching other player’s swings that I liked and I came to the conclusion that the things that Sean Foley was doing would be a good fit for me, both professionally and personally.
I started working with Foles at the PGA Championship in August and approached it like an open book. I said I would change whatever he thought I needed to change to get better. I was open to change. For two or three months now we’ve looked at everything in my game and worked endlessly on getting better. I didn’t play great at Quail Hollow but I had spells during that week, and hit one or two shots, that showed me that what I am doing is working. It’s hard when you’re on the range before a round in a Major and your swing feels strange. It feels new and uncomfortable. To take that the course and try and commit to it is hard but I saw enough there to want to keep working on it and I feel I’m on a really good path now.
I don’t see him every week but we’re always face-timing or messaging, talking Trackman numbers or just working on drills. The important thing is that I can see and feel the changes. It might just be a shot here and there, or a ball flight on a certain shot but I can feel the changes and it’s made me happier on the course and off it too.
When I swing good, I feel good. Both mentally and physically. It’s not breaking news that I’ve had back issues. The truth is that when I was swinging badly, I was putting strain on my back and it became an issue. I had to pull out of a couple of events and it became a problem. It was annoying as working out didn’t hurt it, drills didn’t hurt it but firing into the ball at full speed and just being a little off could cause a lot of pain. It ended up taking over my game as I’d be taking painkillers in the morning after waking up in pain, getting an hour of physio before each round, playing the round with a swing that hurt, then needing an hour of physio after the round. I was just knackered.
Honestly, the injury became a self-fulfilling issue as I wasn’t playing well, which hurt my back but I would go home and hit balls for five hours at home in a position that was aggravating my back more. I knew it needed some swing changes and changes in the way I prepared to allow me to get healthy again and starting getting back to the form I know I’m capable of.
Nic, my wife, has been huge in this journey as well. I know, for a while there, I wasn’t a great person to be around. I’d spend ten hours in a day working hard on my game and not getting the results and I’d come home in a bad mood and I just wouldn’t be the person I wanted to be. Luckily, we have a great and honest relationship and she knows when to tell me to wind my neck in and get on with things and when to just give me space. Again, through everything over the last couple of years, the good and bad, my family have been amazing.
Another key person in this recent journey has been my best friend Sam. He’s on the bag now and I’ve known him for years. We played boys golf together back in Sheffield and basically grew up together. We play a lot a home together and he could see that I wasn’t quite myself and agreed to come on board when I asked him and it’s been nice walking the fairways with a close friend and seeing how that dynamic works.
My split with Jonny obviously wasn’t how we would have wanted it to happen. We were good friends and it was just natural that me not playing well was going to put stress on things. He knew I was working my tail off and I knew he was doing the same but a couple of bad breaks and some bad form and it’s easy to let that tension seep into your professional relationship. I’ve spoken to him a few times since and he’s got a good job now, sharing caddie duties with Zak working for Branden Grace and I think he’ll do really well. He’s a great caddie.
No matter how I’m playing now or how my form is, I’m lucky in that I’ve got a memory of performing down the stretch under the biggest pressure possible. That Sunday afternoon at Augusta was incredible and it still drives me today. It’s amazing that when you get in contention in a golf tournament, nothing else matters other than winning. When things are going badly, you start to widen your focus and take in a lot of negative thoughts or comments. However, when things are going well, you feel like you have a force-field around you. It’s impossible to describe the feeling. I don’t care what drugs people might take or things people might do to seek pleasure and joy, it honestly can’t match stiffing a long iron or making a crucial putt on a Sunday in contention in a golf tournament.
It’s incredible how your mind can just take over and carry you in those situations. You can be visibly shaking on the tee and feeling the pressure of what’s going on, yet you get over the ball and split the fairway. Sometimes you look back after a round or watch something back on television and it’s hard to believe you were actually capable of that.
The first European Masters champion in 17 years. 🖐🏼 pic.twitter.com/jRpMJwqRbd— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) 11 April 2016
I remember being on the 16th tee at Augusta and trying to get to the right page in my yardage book and my hands were shaking so much that I was just shuffling the pages, Jon and I spoke about it afterwards and had a laugh about it. He couldn’t believe I was shaking so much but I think it helped him that I was as nervous as him! But by the time we chose the club and the shot, I was able to step up there and flush an eight iron right down the pin. I think nerves can be a good thing. As long as you can acknowledge that you’re nervous because you’re in a situation that you want to be in, it’s about being aware of that and trying to seize that moment and trust what it is that you do.
The opposite side to those nerves for me came at the Ryder Cup. Obviously that week didn’t go the way I wanted and that was due in part to the way I dealt with the pressure based on the fact I wasn’t hitting it as well. I wasn’t able to match those nerves with the confidence that I could pull off the shots under pressure. It was difficult.
I have relied on the help of some of my closest friends on Tour as well. I’m good friends with the likes of Sergio, Henrik and Lee and they are clearly great players in the sport but each have had dips in form and it’s been useful for me to chat with them and understand how they approached those times when confidence was perhaps waning somewhat. What I’ve learnt is that professional golf can be a 30 year career and it’s impossible to think you’re going to be able to go through that without dips in form. It’s a rollercoaster ride. But would I change it? No. Never.
So where do things go from here? All I can say is I’m working hard to ensure they go up. I know I’ve achieved something that 99 percent of players will never get to experience but there is still a lot I want to do. I’ve never won the Race to Dubai having come close twice. That’s something I want to do. But ultimately, I want to know that every day I spent working on this game I was working to get better and never gave up. It’s not easy but that’s golf and that’s why I love it. I’ve had a strained relationship with it in recent months and there were times I felt I was falling out of love with the game but at the end of the day I’ll never stop loving this game and I won’t, let a few poor results stop me from working to get better.
Ultimately, I’m a husband, I’m a father (I have another kid coming in December) and I have a Green Jacket hanging up at home. I’m pretty lucky and I never forget that.