CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – After all of the dark places Danny Willett has occupied over the past 18 months, he wasn’t about to beat himself up Thursday.
“As perfect as we try and be,” he said after a bogey-bogey finish gave him a 2-under 69, putting him three shots off the early lead at The Open, “you should remember the times that were terrible and go, Well, that’s not too bad.”
There have been plenty of terrible times lately for Willett.
Seemingly ever since that 2016 Masters breakthrough he’s been locked in golf purgatory, at times betrayed by his body, his swing and even his own brother.
Willett began to break down not long after he won at Augusta, a tournament, not unlike The Open here in 1999, that’s destined to be remembered more for the player who lost (in this case, Jordan Spieth) than the one who executed all the shots Sunday and triumphed.
Tournaments near and far wanted the Masters champion in their field, and Willett dutifully obliged, putting his slender frame under duress. First his back began to ache, making routine tasks like climbing out of bed and picking up his kids a chore. Then he blew out his shoulder, the pain eventually creeping into his neck. Trying to manage a body that wouldn’t cooperate, he recently told Press Association Sport that he was taking six painkillers a day, to little effect. With his game and body in disarray, his confidence needed a reboot, too, especially after his brother, P.J., posted a poor attempt at satire in the days leading up to the 2016 Ryder Cup. Already showing signs of decline, Willett withered under the spotlight at Hazeltine and needed more than a year to rebuild his self-belief.
How dark were those times?
“Pitch black,” he said. “Not a nice place to be.”
Save for a scare in Italy (knee) and in a practice round here at Carnoustie (shoulder), Willett has mostly been injury-free for the past eight months, allowing him to dive headlong into some much-needed changes. Needing a fresh start, he blew out the entire team around him late last summer, tabbing swing coach Sean Foley to overhaul his swing.
“He was quite battered,” Foley said.
But Foley has a history of resurrecting players who have fallen on hard times, most famously Tiger Woods, with whom he began working in 2010, just a few months after his scandal. He’s also helped Sean O’Hair, Stephen Ames and Justin Rose find a swing that alleviates the discomfort in their backs.
Willett’s fall was steeper, and more harrowing, but for Foley the challenge remained the same.
“I guess I enjoy that in a way, because I’ve grown into a mentor as well as a coach,” he said. “They’ve been playing golf their whole life. They got good really quick, and when you get to the summit, there’s no oxygen and it’s really cold. Most climbers die when they go down a mountain instead of up it. These guys have never really struggled before.”
Mentally and physically, on a 0-to-10 scale, Willett was a “0” when Foley first saw him at last year’s PGA.
“When you know how good you can be, and you can’t get back to that point, that’s where they lose their mind,” Foley said. “The range can be a dangerous place to be.”
And so they targeted some of the moves in Willett’s swing that were causing him pain and went to work. Success was slow, but Foley reminded him to celebrate some of the small victories along the way. Even when he missed eight of 10 cuts earlier this year, Willett took time to appreciate that he wasn’t taking painkillers, or that he didn’t need to spend an hour on the physio table, or that he was starting to grow more comfortable in left-to-right wind.
“He’s a very charismatic guy, very upbeat, and I think with where I was, I really needed that,” Willett said. “We often have little jokes about where we were.”
Listening to Willett, the cockiness that fueled his rise to the top 10 in the world is gone. Perhaps that’s what happens when just seven of his 54 rounds played on the European Tour last year were in the 60s.
Even with three top-20s in his past five starts, rising from No. 462 to No. 320 in the world, he remains cautiously optimistic. Asked Thursday if the worst is behind him, he smiled: “You never know. But I’m pretty hopeful we’ll never be in as dark of a place as we were.”
“Regardless of what the golf is and how the golf is,” he said, “it’s a lot better place to be.”