Danny Willett has experienced the moment which every golfer across the world dreams about: clinching Masters victory at Augusta.
But things have not been easy for the 30-year-old Englishman since his shock win in April 2016.
The Yorkshireman has not won a tournament since claiming the iconic Green Jacket, dropping to 66th in the world rankings after reaching a career-high ninth following his Augusta triumph.
He has struggled for form and fitness since, while also splitting with his coach, caddy and manager in the past 12 months.
In a candid blog for the European Tour website, Willett discusses the mental pressure of being a Masters winner, coping with a painful back injury and making difficult changes as he aims to resurrect his career.
‘Nothing prepares you for winning a major’
Willett became the first Briton to win the Masters in 20 years with a shock victory in April 2016, taking advantage as American Jordan Spieth suffered a meltdown. Spieth led by five shots as he approached the 10th hole on the final day, only to crumble and allow Willett to take advantage.
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about winning the Masters.
I think about nearly every shot that week. I remember how I felt at each point throughout the week. It’s amazing how you get the same feelings on weeks when you win or do well.
Clearly it’s not easy to replicate that feeling but once you’ve had them, you’ll let them go, and that week in April was unforgettable to say the least.
What’s funny is that we, as golfers, spend so much time practising for those moments, working on our swings, those chip shots, pressure putts, how to deal with being in contention mentally but no one ever really prepares you for what happens next, after you achieve greatness like that.
Ultimately I’ll be able to look back on that day and be thankful for all that it has given me but it’s not always easier dealing with the aftermath.
‘I didn’t want to play golf’
Willett finished third at the PGA Championship at Wentworth shortly after Augusta, but only went on to claim one more top-10 finish in 2016 as his form started to dip. This year has been even less productive, missing the cut at seven events – including at his Masters defence – and withdrawing from three others.
There’s been quite a few low points over the last few months.
At the end of 2016, I was in contention in the Race to Dubai and I just didn’t want to play golf. Think about that. It’s utterly ridiculous.
I had entered the HSBC Champions in China, Turkey, Nedbank and Dubai – four of the biggest tournaments of the year – and I didn’t want to play. I just didn’t feel good enough to compete.
So I had a few options. I could withdraw or I could play and work my butt off to try and find some form. It was hard and I didn’t play great but I finished 11th at Nedbank and ultimately finished runner-up in the Race to Dubai, for the second straight year.
People don’t realise just how golfers’ schedules are created and you often commit to events months ahead of time, when you’re playing well, then turn up six months later as a completely different golfer.
‘Back pain took over my game’
Willett’s season has been disrupted by a back injury which forced him to withdraw from both the Players Championships and US Open earlier this year.
When I swing good, I feel good. Both mentally and physically. But when I was swinging badly, I was putting strain on my back and it became an issue.
It was annoying as working out didn’t hurt it, drills didn’t hurt it, but firing into the ball at full speed and just being a little off could cause a lot of pain.
It ended up taking over my game as I’d be taking painkillers in the morning after waking up in pain, getting an hour of physio before each round, playing the round with a swing that hurt, then needing an hour of physio after the round. I was just knackered.
Honestly, the injury became a self-fulfilling issue as I wasn’t playing well, which hurt my back but I would go home and hit balls for five hours at home in a position that was aggravating my back more.
I knew it needed some swing changes, and changes in the way I prepared, to allow me to get healthy again and starting getting back to the form I know I’m capable of.
‘Hard work doesn’t always pay off’
Willett is also a husband and a father, meaning he has to juggle the demands of being a professional sportsman with those of his family life.
The truth is very few people know the sacrifices I make to try and be the best golfer I can be.
They don’t know that I’ll get up at 5am to get some practice in or hit the gym, before my son wakes up at 6.30am and I need to help my wife with him.
They don’t know that I’m still working my nuts off in the gym and on the range only to go out and shoot a 75.
They think I should be able to shoot 72 just showing up for my tee time in the afternoon but it’s not that easy and there’s so much that goes on, behind the scenes, to get you to that first tee.
It’s often easy just to rank or rate a player’s round based on the score they shoot but that’s not always how players view their craft.
Golf is a strange sport. When you’re playing well, it seems very easy, but when you’re struggling it feels like all the time on the range makes no difference out on the course.
‘Nothing can match stiffing a long iron’
It’s amazing that when you get in contention in a golf tournament, nothing else matters other than winning.
When things are going badly, you start to widen your focus and take in a lot of negative thoughts or comments. However, when things are going well, you feel like you have a force-field around you.
It’s impossible to describe the feeling. I don’t care what drugs people might take or things people might do to seek pleasure and joy, it honestly can’t match stiffing a long iron or making a crucial putt on a Sunday in contention in a golf tournament.
Ultimately, I want to know that every day I spent working on this game I was working to get better and never gave up. It’s not easy but that’s golf and that’s why I love it.
I’ve had a strained relationship with it in recent months and there were times I felt I was falling out of love with the game, but at the end of the day I’ll never stop loving this game and I won’t let a few poor results stop me from working to get better.
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