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The Masters 2024: Danny Willett impresses on comeback from shoulder surgery

The Masters 2024: Danny Willett impresses on comeback from shoulder surgery

By Mathieu Wood

With no expectations, you’re open to possibility. At least, that’s what Danny Willett told himself ahead of his first competitive round of golf for almost seven months at the 88th Masters Tournament.

Danny Willett-2148287717
Danny Willett was playing his first competitive round in 207 days

His mindset, entirely understandable for a player who is returning to action six months ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery, was rewarded with an impressive four-under-par 68 in Thursday's first round at Augusta National. 

Willett, the Masters champion of 2016, arrived at the first men’s Major Championship of the year still unsure whether he would be able to play.

But the opportunity to play at the scene of his greatest triumph was one that had fuelled his motivation during his rehabilitation over recent months - a process he discussed earlier this week with the DP World Tour - since he went under the knife following last year's BMW PGA Championship in September.

To birdie three of his closing four holes as the winds picked up, and with it hold the clubhouse lead before being overtaken by Bryson DeChambeau, was a bonus he was only too grateful to accept.

"I think in terms of expectation, no one really knew," he told reporters after his fine opening-day performance. "I didn't really know. I haven't been under the gun since Wentworth, under pressure, having to hit certain shots at certain times when there actually are consequences.

"It's nice to come and prove that if you've done the work and you do the right things that you can hit the shots still when you need to.

"Everything is just a building block. This was a completely neutral week. Whether I played or not I was still going to come here and enjoy being here.

"I might go out tomorrow and shoot 80, I don't know. But it's just the fact that we're here and pain-free, it's just a nice way to be."

It's just the fact that we're here and pain-free, it's just a nice way to be

As a past champion, Willett was always planning to be at Augusta this week – even if just to attend the Champions Dinner – but as the weeks and days drew nearer, his hopes of reaching a level sufficient to enable him to tee it up became an ever more realistic reality.

But it was still a late call. In fact, Willett only made the decision to play after feeling no ill effects from playing 27 holes in practice on Sunday.

“Even if you play bad I think it's still worthwhile taking the risk and at least pegging it up and feed off people's energy around here and hopefully have a few good days,” he explained. 

He added: "Again, because it was playing tough, probably really made us concentrate that little bit more. Nice finish there with them last four holes to come back, and instead of posting an all right score of level-ish, which would, again, for me have been an amazing achievement, but to shoot 68 I am really happy."

Teeing off in the third group of the day, one delayed by two and a half hours following early morning rain and storms, Willett made the first birdie of the tournament as he quickly got to two under through his opening three holes.

Despite a bogey at the fifth, he responded well with back-to-back birdies at the seventh and eighth to reach the turn at three under.

And, while he dropped shots at the tenth and 14th, his fast finish – capped by a closing birdie at the tough 18th ensured the dream start to his tenth Masters appearance.

“I think I might take the next six months off,” he joked. “No, it's completely unexpected.

“Sometimes that happens… You make a couple of birdies and your mind starts thinking, all right, I can do it. It was nice to keep chilled out.”

His performance was full reward for the efforts he and his support team have put in to build up the strength in his shoulder, with his biggest pre-event concern being an inability to produce the shots required on a tough layout.

“It was never an issue of whether or not the shoulder was strong enough, it was whether or not I could hit the shots I wanted to,” he explained.

“I had some great people around me, and we did some great work and put the hours in, and again, I could have shot 80 but it was still nice to have the ability to peg up and not be in pain.

“From where I was seven, eight, nine months ago and previous, to be able to play pain-free is a pretty nice thing.”

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