Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Danny Willett’s surprise Masters victory is a reminder of the long-term success European Tour players have had on the biggest stage in golf
Danny Willett, son of an English vicar and a Swedish mother, is now the owner of a decidedly unfashionable and immensely desirable green jacket.
With a brilliant final round of 67 at Augusta National on April 10—where he carded five birdies and zero bogeys—Willett won the Masters and with it the green blazer that symbolizes excellence at the very top of the game.
Willett's profile may have been low in America prior to his victory, and few viewers anticipated he would emerge victorious, especially after the strong start by American superstar Jordan Spieth. But Willett's win should not come as a surprise. It marked the fifth time in 10 years that the green jacket was draped over the shoulders of a player from outside the United States. Willett is one of many players to forge his game in the crucible of the European Tour and to have that success translate into victories on the grand stage of the PGA Tour. His five-under par Augusta triumph is yet another reminder of the strength and depth of the European Tour.
Willett's victory at the Masters was the 50th major win by a European Tour player since 1979, according to European Tour calculations. The European Tour is tough on players and fosters a tough-minded mentality. That mindset is one of the primary reasons Europe's team has won five of the last six Ryder Cup competitions. In high-pressure situations, European Tour players seem to buckle down and play their best.
"First of all it's a great tour, second of all it's a lot more difficult to play than the United States," says Butch Harmon, the noted golf instructor who has also commentated for European Tour television. "In the United States everybody has it too easy. All the courses are in perfect condition, the practice facilities are good, the weather is much better, you travel in one country."
The tougher conditions of the European Tour help its players mesh and help each other out when things get difficult, according to Harmon. "I think that creates a very good bond of the players and that's one of the reasons of the success of the Europeans in the Ryder Cup," he says. "The guys on the European Tour eat in the same restaurants, drink in the same bars, they travel together, seem to spend more time together. We don't quite see that on the U.S. tour where guys are more individual. Most of the guys fly private jets, don't go to dinner."
There is no shortage of star performers on the PGA Tour who proved themselves first on the European Tour. You have Rory McIlroy ascending to No. 1 in the world and winning four majors—a U.S. Open, a British Open and two PGAs. Fellow North Irishmen Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open and Darren Clarke won the 2011 British Open. Englishman Justin Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open. Four-time major winner Ernie Els has been joined on the major winning roster by fellow South Africans Louie Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel who have won one each.
Going back a little farther, you have England's Nick Faldo, who won six majors and spent 97 weeks ranked as the No. 1 golfer in the world. Spaniard José María Olazábal and the German Bernhard Langer won two Masters each. Scot Sandy Lyle and the Welshman Ian Woosnam each won one. Lyle also won a British Open. The Australian Adam Scott was the 2013 Masters winner. South African Nick Price won two PGA Championships and a British Open. Australian Greg Norman won two British Opens. All of them have spent time on the European Tour.
The true beginning of this European trend of brilliance was sparked by the sensational career of Seve Ballesteros, the dashing Spaniard who won five major championships. The European Tour was officially established in 1972, and Ballesteros was its shining light, bagging his first major at the 1979 British Open.
"Seve was really the forbearer in many ways," says Els. "Just a windfall of great players coming through. [Ballesteros] just inspired a whole generation of players."
You could say that three golfing generations later, Danny Willett was being carried by the spirit of Seve Ballesteros.
It wasn't as if Willett was a complete dark horse at Augusta, even if his accomplishments were somewhere in the background of the American golf psyche. He won the English Amateur championship in 2007, attended Jacksonville State University in America and became the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world. He turned pro in 2008, qualified for the European Tour and won five events there. He made brief forays onto the PGA Tour, finishing third at the 2015 WGC-Cadillac Match Play and 38th at the 2015 Masters. By the start of 2016 he was in the top 20 in the world. After the Masters victory, he was No. 9.
"Danny Willett has been a good player for a while," says Harmon. "Americans weren't used to seeing him until he played so well at the Masters. But he's played well in big tournaments over here, won in Europe. He plays with a tremendous amount of confidence. I like that about him. He handled the pressure of the situation at Augusta beautifully. I don't think Danny is getting the credit for playing as well as he did and handling the situation. I think you are going to see him contend in the majors in the future. He's got a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability, some would say cocky, but you have to have that to succeed in this game."
Cocky, yes. But also grounded. The youngest of four brothers growing up in the English city of Sheffield, England, the 28-year-old Willett was never allowed to outgrow his britches.
"My dad, as you'd expect, is pretty philosophical and my mum, being Swedish, is more straightforward and blunt," Willett said after he won the Masters. "I've had times when I've wanted an arm round my shoulder and I've been given a kick up the backside instead. Which is how it should be."
But he is allowed to exceed everyone's expectations. He's got a certain one-off swing, one that wouldn't necessarily be copied but one that works for him. And one that was honed during this travels on the European Tour.
"The European Tour is a wonderful tour to travel if you want to learn about life," says Els, who at 46 still plays both a PGA Tour and European Tour schedule. "You just adapt. Golf is all about adapting. When you make a double bogey on the first, you have to adapt your game plan. If you get a cold wind, you have to adapt your game to that. You are more out there, exposed to different types of elements, different types of situations on the European Tour.
"You learn a lot more about yourself and your game traveling so much. You can imagine going through passport control all the time. The percentage of your trip not quite working out 100 percent the way the travel agent has it planned is quite high on the European Tour. You have to adapt."
Els once encountered a situation of cuisine that required him to adapt in an unusual way. "There was one situation in Beijing many years ago where we stayed at a place where they had authentic Chinese food and my stomach doesn't go well with that," says Els. "So I had a chef, who couldn't speak English very well, prepare me spaghetti Bolognese for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week....It toughens you up a bit, so that's why I think [European] players are not afraid of winning over here. They feel conditions here are much better for them to play good golf."
After the Masters Willett accepted PGA Tour membership, and you can expect him to become a fixture on this tour soon. The PGA Tour is the regular port of call for many European Tour players who now base themselves in the United States—McIlroy, McDowell, Scott, Els, Rose, Schwartzel and Oosthuizen all have homes in America, along with many other European stalwarts like Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Luke Donald.
"If you want to make life easier on yourself, you come to America to play," says Faldo, who has 30 wins on the European Tour plus nine PGA Tour wins, six of them his majors. "My goal was always about getting home on Sunday night, run as fast as you could to the airport so you could be a dad for a couple of days. In America it's so much easier: no passports, [so much] prize money there's private planes. I did alright in America, but I didn't play that much and I lived out of a suitcase here rather than moving here. I didn't win all that much here, but if I'd come here and lived here, might have been a different story."
That said, Faldo wouldn't trade his past, where he played primarily on the European Tour and made sorties to the States for stretches at a time.
"The European Tour has really, really grown," says Faldo. "Way back when Seve and I were doing it, the prize money was a third the size of the American tour. But I think players like to support the European Tour because if you like traveling—which you have to do—you go to far more diverse places on the European Tour. The American tour is easier to play, but the European Tour is probably more interesting. You play in national cities. You fly to major cities across Europe, the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia."
That journey, says Harmon, makes a golfer mentally stronger.
"I recommended [playing the European Tour] to Adam Scott years ago, thought it would be a better test for him to test himself on different kinds of courses, different countries, different weather conditions, different travel conditions. It worked out great for Adam," says Harmon. "I recommended it to Peter Uihlein, Brooks Koepka."
At the outset of his PGA Tour career, Willett is likely to be a commuter, juggling European PGA Tour events and continuing to live in Rotherdam, England, with his wife Nicole and new infant son Zachariah. If not for Zachariah's early arrival on March 30, Willett would not have even played in the Masters. If his wife had gone to term—April 11, the Monday after the Masters—it would have been the baby boy's birthdate and Willett said he would have definitely been home.
"Fortunately enough, he listened to my prayers and he came early," Willett said. "It's been a ridiculously awesome 12 days [from birth to victory]. Words can't describe what I'm feeling right now. But words definitely can't describe how I was feeling when you get to hold something that me and my wife have made. It's just incredibly surreal."
Golf is a selfish sport and the hours and hours of practice required, time that exceeds the tournament play itself, can eat into the humanity of a player, if he allows it. It hardly seems that Willett will. When asked his plans immediately after the Masters, he responded by saying: "Get home, put the kettle on, and change some nappies. I'm looking forward to spending time with Nicole and the little man. It's been a tough week leaving him when he was only just born."
But at the same time, the potential for a new star was born, though Willett was hardly an overnight sensation. Ever since he got hooked on the game at age 11, he's been a worker. His first coach, Peter Ball, had this to say about him to the Associated Press: "The most notable thing was in the winter when he was getting better, he'd stay there until it was absolutely pitch black, chipping and putting under the lights of the club. I'd say to him, it's pitch black, freezing cold, you really should be going home. His ability to work was incredible."
That work ethic was put to the test when he decided to come to Jacksonville State University. "It was there I learned how to practice properly," Willett said. "I had to manage my own time. I was in the gym six days a week. I had to qualify on a weekly basis. And I had my schoolwork, too. I had to keep up a grade average."
Then after qualifying for the European Tour, he had to learn how to live and work on it, something that he will have to do on the PGA Tour, but Els sees that job as far easier even though the competition is the very best.
"The competition on the U.S. tour is a little bit stiffer," says Els. "You can imagine flying around the world on the European Tour going from destination to destination, your body is different, your concentration is different, there is a little difference in the scoring, which on the U.S. tour will be a little bit lower. The competition is stiffer from the best players in the field to the last player in the field," he explains. "Because of the traveling [on the European Tour], it's a rough tour to be on, and that affects your play. The travel and the conditions on the U.S. tour are much better—even if the competition is tougher."
If only Willett can duplicate Els' success of switching between the tours, of traveling the globe, of racking up a Hall of Fame record. Els could have just stayed in the United States, but he's a devoted global golfer.
"I'm proud and glad I'm still playing in Europe because I love that side of the sword as well," says Els. "I'm a greedy guy. I love playing in Asia, I love playing in South Africa and England. And I love playing in the U.S. If you can do both, there is no better job in the world."
Lee Westwood has been a major influence on Willett. Although Westwood has come up short of winning a major, the Englishman finished tied second in this year's Masters and was paired with Willett on the final day. Willett found Westwood's presence comforting and reassuring as he put together his bogey-free final round.
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