There are many understandable reactions a world-class golfer could and might have to three-putting from less than four feet on the 72nd hole to kick away a PGA Tour title: cursing; pouting; dropping into the fetal position; snapping one’s putter over one’s knee; storming off the property and refusing to talk to the press; maybe even calling it quits.
Danny Willett did none of that.
A quick recap: When Willett arrived on the 18th green at the Fortinet Championship the Sunday before last leading by two, all that stood between him and his first Tour title since the 2016 Masters (not to mention the $1.44-million first prize check) was a measly 3 feet 7 inches. Max Homa, Willett’s playing partner and nearest pursuer, had just holed out a chip shot for an unlikely birdie on the par-5 to make things more interesting, but still, the tournament undoubtedly was Willett’s to lose.
And lose it he did.
He banged his birdie try past the left edge of the hole, leaving himself a nervy nearly-five-footer coming back. When that one caught the left edge but didn’t drop, Willett looked like he’d just seen a ghost. Shock, awe, disbelief, anguish. All the emotions hit him. And yet he kept his composure. No club-tossing or head-down-hands-in-pockets beeline for the parking lot. Willett congratulated Homa, signed his card, then gamely answered reporters’ questions about what was surely the most dispiriting — and certainly the most stunning — 72nd hole of his career.
“I don’t know how you else would handle it,” Willett said earlier this week from the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, in Scotland.
Actually, there are several ways he could have handled it, a few of which we’ve already referenced. But Willett’s resolve is what makes the episode one of the most commendable and aspirational stories of the golfing year: Even after the 34-year-old Englishman had more than week to process his nightmare in Napa, he’s drawing only the positives from it.
“You can’t look at that week in a bad way,” Willett said. “You still finished second. You still picked up a hell of lot of [Ryder Cup] points. Yeah, would you have liked to have rewound time for two minutes, yeah. But we can’t do that. We’ve got to kind of take from it and when we are in that position, won’t happen [again].”
Willett has every right to feel assured that he hasn’t lost his nerve, or his ability to close. It was just a year ago at the Dunhill, after all, that he shot a Sunday 68 on the Old Course to win by two, ending a two-year winless drought that had seen him drop to 170th in the world. And now, this week, he’s back in Scotland as defending champion at an event that is conducted on three A-list courses: Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and the Old Course.
Good vibes? With Willett, you can count on it. Good weather? Ehh, in Scotland that’s anybody’s guess — but, yes, rain and wind are in the forecast.
“If you want to have a good chance of being up there on Sunday, you’ve got to get a little bit lucky as well in terms of where you draw and on which days if it’s windy or rainy or whatever it is,” Willett said. “It’s not as tricky as it would be in an Open, for example. But basically, if you come in with the mindset that it’s going to be rubbish, the weather, and it’s not, then it’s a bonus, isn’t it?”
Coming in with a mindset that his Fortinet finish was nothing more than a regrettable anomaly will also be key for Willett. He’s been saying all the right things, which leads you to believe he’s thinking all the right things, too.
“Kind of just crack on, and keep doing the things that you’re doing and hopefully give yourself plenty more chances,” he said. “We’ve still won many times around the world and played well on Sundays to win. So, like I said, I played great all day [in Napa]. The finish obviously wasn’t what we wanted but you’ve still got to take a hell of a lot from a great week.”