Englishman was on top of the world after winning the 2016 US Masters before injury and a loss of form derailed his career, but a 'very emotional' victory in Dubai proves he is back on track
Danny Willett interview: From a 'very dark place' to DP World Tour Championship winner
A little beyond the morning after the night before, and still it hadn’t really sunk in.
“Yes and no,” Danny Willett says, trying to put into words what victory at the DP World Tour Championship the previous day meant to him. “It’s been a strange spell of golf and a really, really nice way to finish a really tough old 24 months.”
Wasn’t it just? Willett had been to professional hell and back, when his health deserted him not long after winning the 2016 Masters and prompted a drastic loss of form. As he describes, it took him to a “very, very dark place”.
The rankings reflected that. From ninth in the world, he plummeted to 462nd, this May. A five-time winner on the European Tour, he hadn’t triumphed since donning the Green Jacket, his greatest success threatening to be his last. For a seemingly endless period, the Englishman couldn’t swing a golf club without a sharp shock to his back. Painkillers became part of his daily routine.
But a hook-up with Sean Foley at last year's US PGA Championship led to a change in swing - designed to eradicate the pain - and, for the past six months, the signs had been promising. Willett finished tied-8th in Italy in June, tied-6th in Ireland five weeks later, and tied-7th in Turkey last month. Then, at Jumeirah Golf Estates on Sunday, he withstood the drama and the doubts to seal a first win in 953 days.
Since then, everything’s been a bit of whirlwind. Little wonder he’s struggled to get back to all the congratulations and well wishes.
“I haven’t even read everything yet,” says Willett on Monday, sat in the Els Club following the Golf Invitational for sponsors Audemars Piguet. “There’s been a lot of people, the stuff on social media’s been amazing by the sounds of it, and my phone’s been buzzing like a hotline.
“It’s just nice to know that people are watching and do care. And it was nice to have my family out there and able to enjoy the moment with them. The kids haven’t seen me win - probably only seen me in pretty poor form - so it was nice to have them all there.”
The pictures stressed the significance. Interviewed greenside immediately after the two-shot win was secure, Willett could barely contain his emotions as he stood alongside wife Nicole, with young sons Zach and Noah in his arms.
“You always see this in tournaments when people hole the winning putt and their kids run onto the green and you’re like ‘that’d be nice, wouldn’t it?’” Willett says. “Last week was a great week all round, relaxing with the family, chilling by the pool. The work I’ve been doing is good and it’s a really good balance of everything.
“And then to finish it off on Sunday and win, and to have them afterwards, was pretty special. It was very emotional moment. It’s been a tricky time.”
Celebrating properly has been difficult, too. Media commitments lasted long after the final putt on the Earth Course dropped, although Family Willett did spend the night having a curry at Indego in Grosvenor House – a regular spot they frequent when in Dubai. There, Willett was presented with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of bubbly to commemorate the win.
“Bless them,” he smiles.
Now back inside the world’s top 100, he feels far from wilted.
“I feel like what I have done over the past 18 months has prolonged my career,” Willett says. “And that’s all we want to do really: we want to play this game for as long as possible. And if I'd have stayed where I was, and with what I was doing, it probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.
“Lots of good things have happened the past six-to-eight months, seeing various people do things: Tiger [Woods] obviously coming back this year to achieve what he’s achieved, and [Lee Westwood] winning last week.
"It’s been a good year for a few of us people, that were maybe written off, to do a bit. Yeah, yesterday was nice for a lot of reasons.”