PEOPLE

Humble start for vicar's son paved path to Masters

US Masters champion Danny Willett with his wife Nicole and two-week-old son Zachariah at Lindrick Golf Club in Yorkshire last week.
US Masters champion Danny Willett with his wife Nicole and two-week-old son Zachariah at Lindrick Golf Club in Yorkshire last week. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • To understand just how far Danny Willett, 28, has travelled to become Masters champion, it is worth taking the 800m stroll from his childhood home in inner-city Sheffield to the golf course where he learnt the rudiments of the game.

Next to a small hilltop church in Hackenthorpe, where his father presides as vicar, is the modern, modest vicarage from which Willett would stride down the hill, bag over his shoulder, from the age of 12. The municipal course at Birley Wood faces back across the valley and the walk from the vicarage follows tram tracks, passing housing estates on either side.

This is just about as far from the manicured country club other-worldliness of Augusta as you will find. And it was Willett's good fortune that, after developing a taste for the game on a family holiday, he was able to indulge his passion so close to home, with a city council-funded programme at Birley Wood run by a highly respected local coach.

"He was there so often he got to know every inch of the course," Pete Ball, the coach in question, said. "Then he'd walk home, back up the hill, often in the rain.

"He never moaned once, he didn't care as long as he got a game."

NO COMPLAINTS

He was there so often he got to know every inch of the course. Then he'd walk home, back up the hill, often in the rain. He never moaned once, he didn't care as long as he got a game.

PETE BALL, golf coach, on the formative years of the young Danny Willett.

The seed of Willett's love for the game had been sown on a rustic, windswept par-three course in Anglesey, populated by sheep.

Was this a golf-mad father dragging his offspring out for a holiday round on any old course? Not quite. It was merely the place where Steve Willett took his four sons to give his wife, Elisabet, a secondary school mathematics teacher, a lie-in during her holidays.

"I liked to spend the mornings in bed," she told the BBC. "So my husband used to take the boys golfing and gradually Danny got better and better. He had his first golfing lesson in Llangefni on Anglesey and it went from there."

The proximity of the Birley Wood course and the availability of Ball's coaching expertise enabled Willett's passion to flourish. In particular, he showed an aptitude for the Twenty20 challenge that Ball would set for his most promising players, setting up a square on the green towards which they had to aim their chip shots. They were not allowed to finish practice for the evening until they had played 20 consecutive shots. The snag was that the coach would choose the club, so those chips often had to be played with a rescue wood.

"Danny's an incredibly competitive lad, strong-willed and self-sufficient," Ball said. "That challenge was about learning to play under pressure and it got his juices flowing. I had to keep making the box smaller for him."

As Willett progressed, the time came for him to move on from Birley Wood, becoming a member at the Bondhay Club, a 15-minute drive towards Worksop, where there was a championship-standard course to stretch his game.

Almost every day after school, then on weekends too, he would be dropped off by one of his parents at Bondhay.

When the professionals at the club, Michael Ramsden and Greg Hyde, finished their duties for the evening, they would take their most eager junior out on the course. "He had the right attitude from the start, he could be feisty, but he just wanted to learn and to play whatever the weather," Ramsden said.

Hanging around the pro shop had other benefits. "He didn't have a huge amount of money, but I was able to help him out with free stuff," Ramsden said. "I remember the smile on his face when I gave him a pair of Sergio Garcia adidas shoes, white with black stripes on, he was a happy lad that day."

There was also a formative first experience of the Open, when Ramsden, attempting to qualify for Royal Troon in 2004, employed Willett, 16, as his wide-eyed caddy.

"I missed out in a play-off and I still blame him for choosing the wrong wedge," Ramsden said, with a smile. "But we stayed up there, he rubbed shoulders with the pros and he was absolutely captivated by the whole experience."

The Open is back at Royal Troon and Willett will return as a Major winner. Step by step, his game has been maturing, helped by the stability of his life away from the course, having married Nicole in 2012 and become a father last month.

He led the Open at St Andrews briefly last year before finishing tied for sixth, having admitted that earlier in his career he was often unsettled by holding the lead. He has sought help from Steve Peters, the renowned psychiatrist, who has worked with British Cycling and Liverpool, whom Willett supports.

"Leading is tough and your mind can start playing tricks," he said.

In Augusta on Sunday, it was title holder Jordan Spieth who was weighed down by the front runner's burden. Willett remained calm, perhaps helped by his father's entreaties to higher powers.

"We are thanking God for lots of water at the moment because Spieth put his ball into it twice, which was wonderful," Reverend Willett said.

With such friends in high places, Willett's victory at the Masters should only be the start of his success.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Humble start for vicar's son paved path to Masters'. Print Edition | Subscribe