Sheffield’s son of a preacher man encountered something of a biblical-style storm at the Open last weekend. Forget four seasons in a day; St Andrews encountered about seven as the world’s best were showered with rain, battered by high winds and bathed in glorious sunshine.
Danny Willett, the 27-year-old son of a teacher and a Reverend from the almost-appropriately named Hackenthorpe, finished tied sixth at the home of golf, tying as top Brit, alongside Justin Rose, and top European with Sergio Garcia.
Not that he was just here to make up the numbers; Willett was denied a fairytale first-ever major victory by three bogeys on the back nine on Sunday.
But he takes away the confidence that he belongs, amongst such exalted company, at the elite level of the game. “I’ve been right up there in contention pretty much from the get-go and I was playing some good golf,” he said.
“It’s been good. I obviously finished 15th at Muirfield a couple years back and had some decent finishes along the way, but being in contention all week has been nice. Being around the mix and in the last few groups is always that much better.
“The more you play with the guys, the more you realise that they don’t do things a great deal better than you, if at all.
“You realise actually, yeah, I’m pretty equipped to do pretty well out here.”
So, a few days of hard-earned rest after the Open? Not quite. Willett’s next obligation is the Omega European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland.
“I’m driving home tonight,” he said after departing St Andrews.
“Then it’s an early flight tomorrow up to Switzerland to meet my mum and dad.”
Zach Johnson’s victory at St Andrews means the wait goes on for golfers from God’s own county; no Yorkshireman has ever won the Open. Not yet, anyway.
Mum to Willett is Elisabet, a Swedish-born maths teacher at Edward Sheerien comprehensive school in Barnsley. Willett pays tribute to his mother with the colours of the Swedish flag on his golf bag, and she showed all the humility of a true Yorkshirewoman when she proudly texted her son after he’d completed his second round at the 144th Open.
Willett shot 69 to add to his first-round 66 for a nine-under-par total, and went to bed on Friday night as the clubhouse leader.
The more you play with the guys, the more you realise that they don’t do things a great deal better than you, if at all. You realise actually, yeah, I’m pretty equipped to do pretty well out hereDanny Willett
His mum’s congratulatory message? Well done on making the halfway cut! There is certainly no danger of Willett’s feet leaving the ground anytime soon.
Dad is Reverend Steve Willett, of Christ Church in Hackenthorpe. He missed much of his son’s weekend exploits - he had a couple of weddings on Saturday and was busy baptising babies on Sunday - and resisted the urge to pray for his son to win. “That wouldn’t be fair,” he smiled.
Formerly the number one ranked amateur in the world, Willett turned professional in 2008 and won the BMW International Open four years later. Victory in the Nedbank Golf Challenge last year rocketed him up the rankings, and he entered the Open third in the Race for Dubai rankings, behind only Louis Oosthuizen and Rory McIlroy.
In 2007, Willett beat McIlroy in the Amateur Championship and the two were team-mates at the 2007 Walker Cup, in Royal County Down. But while the Northern Irishman has gone on to dominate golf, Willett has been forced to take an alternative route to the top - partly due to a back injury in 2013, which cost him a place at the US Open.
“It was obvious back then that Rory was special,” Willett remembers.
“It never looked like it would be an issue for him to do what he has done. What’s great is that the people around him have hardly changed since he was young.
“He is talented, but he works hard too. When I look back at the Walker Cup, it was a cool time.
“But it was eight years ago. Now you are trying to beat each other.”
To do so is tough enough, physically, without even considering the mental demands of golf’s up-and-down, rollercoaster nature. Willett, who boasts a good record at St Andrews, strolled around with an air of confidence throughout, his trademark twitches well contained. He’s joined the pantheon of sporting greats to have worked with Dr Steve Peters, and controlling that well-known ‘inner chimp’ has proved pivotal.
There are still nerves, of course. Willett admits he still feels them, standing on the first tee, when he goes for a round with his mates.
The stakes are higher now. When they get too much, Willett thinks back to the days when he played in what he describes as a ‘sheep field’ in the middle of Wales.
Growing up with two sports-mad older brothers, Willett strived hard to find a sport he could beat them at. He eventually settled on golf.
“We used to go to Anglesey for two weeks in the summer, and play the same nine-hole course three or four times,” he remembers.
“The longest club you hit was probably a seven-iron, on this par-three course in the middle of a sheep field. Fast forward a few years and I’m playing the Masters, and the Open.
“It’s a bit crazy really.”