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Willett has resolve to be back on golf's high wire show

 

By David Kelly

Life at the top in golf often seems akin to that of the role of a tightrope walker nimbly pacing across Niagara Falls, such is the minimal room for error. The Masters champion in 2016, Danny Willett could be forgiven for believing that ever since someone had replaced his golf shoe studs with banana skins.

A torrid time at the Ryder Cup after his brother Peter had insulted the American fans was followed by agonising back pain, a dip in form and a split this year from long-time friend and caddy Jonathan Smart. The back issues remain but his Yorkshire grit has him infused with a desire to be back engaging with the best in the golf's high wire act - starting with this week's Irish Open at Portstewart.

"It's been a tough old year. The back issue has been tricky to deal with and although I've been working very hard I haven't seen the results yet so that has been disappointing, but on the positive side my wife Nicola is pregnant with our second child which is due in September and that's great - it's always important for me to not let things get in the way of normal family life," said Willett, speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph.

"I've decided to play a slightly smaller schedule so we'll see how that pans out. It's easy to over-think things but I know what I can achieve when I'm playing well and it can be frustrating when you don't see it week-in, week-out.

"It's a fickle old game... there's a fine balance between managing your own expectations and everything else that goes with it. I've seen guys who have had no form go and win and vice versa. The way I see it, God has given me a talent and I have to work at it."

The 29-year-old admits that it was only after his victory at the Masters that he truly appreciated the manner in which players - such as this week's host Rory McIlroy - handle the spotlight while continuing to be in the mix for tournament success.

"That moment when I won the Masters was simply elation, I had worked for 17 years for it - since I started playing when I was 11 but it was only when I got home that I realised just how much it meant, how much it meant to people and the realisation of just how few people have won green jackets and then the tricky part came with that," added Willett.

"You put pressure on yourself without even knowing it, you feel that everybody is suddenly watching your every move and when you go to tournaments there's a lot more expected of you and the quiet practice rounds you used to have are no longer quiet. I then started to realise how much I admired guys like Rory, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth who have had that kind of pressure for years and yet they are able to stay mentally and physically fresh.

"I don't want to sound mean but unless you are within the sport and have achieved what they have you have no idea how hard it is to live a normal life. The rewards are great but sometimes guys just want to be able to have a quiet family dinner and I'm sure for someone like Rory that is very hard."

With The Open championship looming large on the horizon, Willett is hoping the fairways of Portstewart can have him in good form for a shot at the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale.

"I always like to play either the Irish Open or the Scottish Open before The Open championship to get used to the links turf and Portstewart should be ideal because it's a true links course. You need a certain mindset for links golf so I'm really looking forward to this week's tournament," said Willett.

"The weather is obviously such a big factor and it can often depend on what side of the draw you're on. Part of the day can be bright and sunny and you can look to score and other days you have to grind it out."

You get the impression there are going to be quite a few more days of slog before Willett can again enjoy the sun on his back but he has the resolve to see it happen and whatever the future brings, Willett will always have Augusta 2016 and only a select few British players can say they scaled such a peak.

 

A few short putts with Willett

Q. What do you love most about golf?

A. The fresh challenge that it brings every day.

Q. What do you dislike most about golf?

A. The fact that it doesn’t care what you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked because you still might not get the result you want.

Q. What is your best characteristic?

A. That I dig in and grind it out at times

Q. What is your worst characteristic?

A. Perfectionism, I’m always trying to be perfect on the course and that is not possible.

Q. What is your earliest memory of golf?

A. Watching Tiger Woods hit it over the water at the 15th at Augusta

Q. If you could invite any four people to dinner who would they be?

A. Frank Sinatra to sing a few tunes, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer because he was such a special guy. He changed the game for everyone, and Morgan Freeman.

Q. What is the meaning of life?

A. The older I get I realise that happiness is the key... to enjoy what you’re working at is very important and I feel privileged to be playing golf.

Q. Who is your biggest inspiration?

A. I would say my parents are top of the list, for all the teaching they gave me and it’s only now that I’m a parent that I really understand what a miraculous job they did for me and my brothers.

Q. Who is your sporting hero?

A. Tiger Woods.

Q. How would you like to be remembered?

A. I’d like to be remembered by family and friends as being a genuine good guy. It can be difficult at times to be the person you want to be on the golf course. I want to be remembered well by the people I can sit down and have a cup of tea with... to be a good friend and father

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