From a council course to the Green Jacket
The Masters champion first developed his love of golf at the age of 12 on a local sports scheme.
Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30
At Birley Wood Golf Course, the council-owned facility in Sheffield where Danny Willett used to play as a youngster, they were not remotely surprised at his success at the Masters.
"If you can play here, you can play anywhere," says Jonathan Pyle, the course professional, pointing out across the hillside course. "The greens here are just as small as Augusta. Round here, if your short game's no good, you've got no chance. No way would the Masters course have fazed him."
Not that Birley Wood could be immediately confused for the Augusta National. Here, high above Sheffield, the first thing you encounter as you turn off the main road is not so much azaleas as graffiti-bedecked shipping containers, stacked up in the car park serving as makeshift stores for the green equipment. Just beyond them is the unprepossessing breezeblock shed, a rusting satellite dish hanging limply from the roof, that serves as the club shop.
"Yeah, but we have got our own equivalent of Amen Corner," says Pyle. "There's a corner of the course where the ground shudders when a tram goes by."
It was here, on the dramatic slopes of the course, hurtling down towards the centre of the city, that Willett's path to the Green Jacket began. He had first played the game on holiday in Anglesey at the age of 12, then on his return to Sheffield he enrolled on a local council sports development scheme that was tasked with getting Sheffield youngsters off the sofa.
It worked. Willett, Kell Brook, Jamie Vardy, Joe Root and Jessica Ennis-Hill were among the local youngsters who benefited.
"I don't know if there's something in the water," says Chris Bethell, who played with Willett at the time and now works in the Birley Wood shop. "I'd put it down to Henderson's Relish. Actually, it was fantastic that scheme in getting kids into golf. Once they were on it, this course was open to them free of charge to practise."
Willett made the most of that. The course was just round the corner from the church where his dad preached, and at weekends and during holidays he would be chipping and putting all day. So often was he there, the green keeper would complain he was wearing out patches on the turf.
"At 12, he was just one of the kids. We had such a talented bunch," says Peter Ball, then the coach in charge of the scheme. "But what Danny had beyond ability was determination. He always worked incredibly hard. He never stopped. In the winter, he'd be out on the course hitting balls at six o'clock in the evening. It had been dark for an hour and a half. I'd be saying to him: 'Come on Danny, I've got a home to go to'."
Not that Ball often got to go home.
"We had an awful lot of fun," he says of the scheme. "Those kids were out there every hour that God sent. You always knew where they were. There was no such thing as being quiet on that golf course. The noise at Augusta was amazing, but Danny will have been used to noise at a golf course. Those kids could bellow."
The noise reflected the competition among the youngsters: it was ferocious.
"We had this rule," recalls Ball, who these days coaches golf coaches. "Whoever lost a round made the tea for everyone else. Danny never wanted to make tea, so he tried never to lose. Mind, he was good at forgetting to do it when he did lose. He still owes me a cup of tea. I send him a text every time he wins to remind him - I sent him one on Sunday."
Never mind his tea-making duties, from the start Ball noted how much Willett was in love with the game.
"We got some tickets for the lads for the Ryder Cup at the Belfry and the police gave us a bus to take them there," recalls Ball. "And all the way there and all the way back, Danny did nothing but talk golf. The bus driver said to me after: 'Cut that kid in half and you'll see the word golf running right through him.' He was right." Soon word got out of the talent pool at Birley Wood. Willett was one of a number of juniors who were offered opportunities to play on the better appointed courses of South Yorkshire. By the time he was 17, he joined Rotherham GC, a parkland course about 25 minutes' drive from Birley Wood. This is the club where, by a nice coincidence, Lee Westwood, who came joint second to Willett in Georgia, holds the course record.
"The first time I saw him, he was way over there on the 12th tee, and he drove right over these trees just here," recalls Steve Mulligan the club captain, as he stands in front of the splendid former stately home of a clubhouse.
"Well, that wasn't that unusual, a good player could do that. What was unusual was a couple of days later. I arrived at 10am and it was chucking it down and there was only one person out on the practice green. It was Danny. I went in to the clubhouse for a meeting and came out about five hours later, it was still chucking it down and he was still out there, still alone."
Practice, practice and more practice paid off. After winning a number of age-group tournaments, and before he headed off to America on a university golf scholarship, Willett was selected for the Walker Cup in 2007. His competition bag is on display in the Rotherham clubhouse. He cannot have much personal memorabilia from that tournament left, as on his return he headed to Birley Wood to hand over all his playing kit, clubs and balls to local youngsters.
"He's been incredibly generous," says Ashley Lerigo, the Rotherham club professional. "After the Open last year he gave us his bag which our junior section auctioned off as part of their appeal for Children in Need. It raised about £1,500."
His Masters bag will fetch considerably more. And the repercussions of his success in Augusta are being felt around South Yorkshire. Not least in the pocket of the Rotherham club pro. "I had £25 on him at 66/1," says Lerigo. "I always back him in big competitions. Usually each way, mind."
And the success of the player who remains a Rotherham member has quickly taken hold.
"We've had a couple of phone calls asking for a round," says Lerigo. "Folk wanting to play on the course where the Masters champion plays. I say, yeah, come along. Then I tell them how much and they put the phone down. No, I'm only joking." At Birley Wood, too, the Willett affect has been immediately tangible.
"Since he won, everyone who has come through that door has mentioned it," says Pyle, as he puts a new grip on a putter in the shop. "The impact is huge. The guy in the Green Jacket once walked these fairways. That's something."
Though sadly, none of the local youngsters will be able to benefit from the scheme that first projected Willett to that Green Jacket. It came to an end in 2011, a victim of local government cuts.
"We produced a lot of talent there: Joe Dean, the English amateur champion, and Oliver Whitely, who is on the European Tour now, came through," says Ball. "But Danny is the one who really made it. And no one deserves it more."
Now, however, instead of free access, any junior golfer wishing to play the Birley Wood course has to pay the green fees: £7 during the week, £9.25 at weekends. But even so, the staff there expect to see the number of young players growing over the next few months.
"He proves anything is possible," says Pyle of the local hero. "As you can see, this isn't the most privileged of areas. What he's done is show even a kid from here can go on to win the Masters. It's an amazing thought, that." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Augusta National, Georgia -
Final round scores & totals (USA unless stated, par 72, (a) denotes amateurs):
D Willett (Eng) 70 74 72 67;
J Spieth 66 74 73 73, L Westwood (Eng) 71 75 71 69;
D Johnson 73 71 72 71, P Casey (Eng) 69 77 74 67, JB Holmes 72 73 74 68;
S Kjeldsen (Den) 69 74 74 71, H Matsuyama (Jpn) 71 72 72 73, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 71 76 74 67;
D Berger 73 71 74 71, R McIlroy (NIrl) 70 71 77 71, J Rose (Eng) 69 77 73 70, B Snedeker 71 72 74 72, J Day (Aus) 72 73 71 73;
K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 72 72 77 70, L Oosthuizen (Rsa) 72 77 71 71;
E Grillo (Arg) 71 75 74 72, B Horschel 70 77 73 72, D Lee (Nzl) 68 74 79 71, R Cabrera-Bello (Spa) 74 73 75 70; 293 (+5)
B Koepka 73 72 76 72, J Donaldson (Wal) 74 72 75 72, B De Chambeau (a) 72 72 77 72;
B Langer (Ger) 72 73 70 79, B Haas 75 74 72 73, A Cabrera (Arg) 73 73 73 75, M Kuchar 75 73 72 74, H Stenson (Swe) 72 75 78 69;
C Hoffman 71 77 73 74, J Walker 71 75 74 75, S Kaufman 73 72 69 81, S Piercy 70 72 79 74, W Simpson 77 72 74 72;
S Garcia (Spa) 69 75 81 71, B Wiesberger (Aut) 73 72 79 72, K Streelman 71 75 79 71;
B Watson 75 75 76 71, K Kisner 77 72 76 72;
J Thomas 76 73 78 71, S Lowry (Irl) 68 76 79 75, R Langasque (a) (Fra) 74 73 83 68;
V Dubuisson (Fra) 73 76 76 74, C Wood (Eng) 72 73 75 79, A Scott (Aus) 76 72 75 76, D Love III 73 73 76 77, T Merritt 74 71 79 75, H English 74 73 76 76, A Lahiri (Ind) 76 73 75 75.
I Poulter (Eng) 69 78 82 71, M Kaymer (Ger) 74 75 79 72, P Reed 76 73 75 76
K Bradley 74 73 77 77, L Mize 76 73 78 74
H Mahan 73 75 78 76
K Na 72 74 85 72, C Smith (Aus) 74 73 82 74
T Jaidee (Tha) 72 76 81 78