A former Masters champ decided to play last minute. He’s in 4th place

Danny Willett smiles at the Masters.

Coming off shoulder surgery, Danny Willett decided on Sunday he'd play the Masters. He then shot one of the best rounds of the day.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Six months ago, Danny Willett wasn’t sure if he’d be able to play in the 2025 Masters, let alone the 2024 Masters.

Willett, the 2016 green-jacket winner, had shoulder surgery in September. His last start was at the BMW PGA Championship, when he played his first 12 holes in six under before aggravating a long-nagging shoulder tear on the 15th hole. He ended up finishing T64 and hasn’t teed it up since.

That’s because the prognosis for the surgery was a 12-18 month recovery.

But on Thursday, Willett teed off in the third group in the opening round of the Masters, birdied the first hole and promptly posted a 68 to take the early clubhouse lead. When play was suspended for the day just before 8 p.m., Willett was tied for fourth behind Bryson DeChambeau (65), Scottie Scheffler (66) and Nicolai Hojgaard (five under through 15).

Not bad for a guy who only decided to enter the tournament five days ago. Yes, Sunday. Willett didn’t decide to play this week until Sunday.

“I played Sunday with a friend of mine, and I played alright. A lot of it was just getting used to the visuals again of the golf course,” Willett said after his round. “We played 27, woke up the next day, no pain, no nothing, walked it, and that was kind of like, alright — even if you play bad I think it’s still worthwhile taking the risk and at least pegging it up and feed off people’s energy around here and hopefully have a few good days.”

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As one of the first players off, turns out Willett was the one who brought the energy. He split the first fairway and found the middle of the putting surface before draining a 19-footer for the first birdie of the tournament. It was his first competitive hole in 207 days.

He followed with another birdie on the short par-4 3rd and went out in 33. He gave a couple back on the second nine with bogeys at 10 and 14 but finished strong, birdieing three of the last four, including drilling a 17-footer at 18 for a closing birdie.

“Again, that top tier, usually you never pitch on there to stop it, and then rolled in a nice 15-, 18-footer across the slope,” he said. “It’s one of those where a lot of good things went today, and hit some nice shots, holed some nice putts.”

Willett said he didn’t even think about potentially playing this week until January.

“I obviously couldn’t lift anything for the first six, eight weeks, and then in January we kind of had a bit of a meeting,” he said. “It was getting to where I could do alright, somewhat swing a club properly, but the strength was there. It was only a case of then, now that we know we’re not going to reinjure it, we really pressed on in January, and we had a really, really intense few months.”

Willett said he hasn’t been able to practice for all of the possible shots he could have faced Thursday, or the rest of the week. He referenced Tiger Woods’ line from a few days ago about his “1,000 contacts” when he’s preparing for a tournament, whether it be full swings, chips or putts.

But the eight-time DP World Tour winner said he was more nervous about making a “fool” of himself.

“It was more the reps and me being a bit nervous, to be honest, about whether or not I’d just come here and mess around and hit the first tree in front of me every time because I’ve not practiced enough,” he said. “It’s actually turned out alright.”

Of course, the Masters isn’t won on Thursday, and Willett still has three rounds to go in an unlikely bid to win a second green jacket, but he said he feels good after one round back.

“I think I might take the next six months off,” he joked. “No, it’s completely unexpected. Sometimes that happens, whatever. You make a couple of birdies and your mind starts thinking, alright, I can do it.”

Jack Hirsh

Golf.com Editor

Jack Hirsh is an assistant editor at GOLF. A Pennsylvania native, Jack is a 2020 graduate of Penn State University, earning degrees in broadcast journalism and political science. He was captain of his high school golf team and recently returned to the program to serve as head coach. Jack also still *tries* to remain competitive in local amateurs. Before joining GOLF, Jack spent two years working at a TV station in Bend, Oregon, primarily as a Multimedia Journalist/reporter, but also producing, anchoring and even presenting the weather. He can be reached at jack.hirsh@golf.com.