CHASKA, Minn. – Danny Willett got booed lightly on the first tee beginning his practice round Thursday at Hazeltine.
This was before he beaned a spectator with an errant drive off the second tee.
There was some minor heckling over the nine holes he played, odd references to “pissy beer,” “cookie dough” and “hot dogs.”
Willett can thank his older brother, Pete, for making his first Ryder Cup as daunting as any European rookie has ever faced. Pete may as well have embroidered “Kick Me” on the back of Danny’s pants this week after penning an article for National Club Golfer that ridiculed American fans as a “braying mob of imbeciles.” Danny’s challenge teeing it up at Hazeltine is more fraught with tension than any other player faces this week.
“We’re all here to try to have a great time in what is a dream come true,” Willett said.
That’s what he was thinking on his way to Hazeltine. It’s a bit of a nightmare now.
Danny’s brother throttled American fans as “fat, stupid, greedy, classless bastards” in an article released Wednesday. Danny literally throttled a spectator at Hazeltine with his errant drive on Thursday. Getty Images moved a photo of the spectator Willett struck with a bag of ice atop his bloody skull.
“Yeah, knocked [the ball] backwards,” Willett confirmed.
Willett, 28, said the whole controversy is a major distraction to his preparation.
“That's been the toughest thing, I guess,” Willett said. “What was said, there’s no going back on anything like that.
“It’s been pretty tricky for me to get back on and fully focus these last few hours, especially this morning.”
Willett apologized to American fans on Golf Channel. He and European captain Darren Clarke have both emphasized that Pete’s insults, intended to be humorous, don’t reflect Danny or the European team’s views. Danny also sought out American captain Davis Love III to apologize.
“It’s forgive and forget,” American Patrick Reed said.
Of course, Reed wasn’t speaking for American fans.
“I’m not sure if American crowds feel quite the same way,” Willett said. “I’m not expecting it to settle down right away.
“Obviously, coming to America, you're already a bit of a target, the European team, the 12 guys. And yeah, it kind of centered the attention a bit more, obviously, upon myself.”
Willett won his first major, the Masters, in April. Europeans don’t really consider him a rookie, but all of a sudden he’s dealing with added tension that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
“I don't think anyone ever came to America, any of the European lads, and thought it was going to be a walk in the park,” Willett said. “There's some pretty rowdy American fans every Ryder Cup. That's the nature of the beast, that's what happens. You don't mind the odd bit of heckling, but hope it doesn't go too far.”
Willett said he wasn’t aware his brother was writing the story before it came out. Pete, 33, is a drama teacher who also writes freelance. Danny said he spoke to Pete after reading the story Wednesday afternoon and spoke to him again Wednesday night.
“We spoke to each other about what was said and how it got interpreted and the reactions from it,” Danny said. “I was disappointed in what he wrote and, obviously, it put a bit of a downer on my first Ryder Cup for the last couple of days.”
Pete isn’t attending the Ryder Cup, but Danny’s parents are following their son this week.
“They were upset with the whole thing and how it came about, and obviously what's been said,” Willett said. “They spoke to Pete last night, and, obviously, had a good chat with him. I don't exactly know what about. I've not fully spoken to them about it, so I'm not quite sure. But they were there again today walking inside the ropes with me and showing their support, and that's all I can ask.”
Lee Westwood said Willett seems to be holding up fine.
“It's a tricky situation that he's been put in, one that I'm sure he didn't want to be placed in,” Westwood said. “But things don't always run smoothly. He seems to be handling it fairly well.”
But bracing for their worst come Friday.