One of the many text messages that Danny Willett received after his second round at the British Open came from his mother. She had written: “Well done, you’ve made the cut.”
He’s doing much better than that.
Willett, a vicar’s son from northern England who likes nothing better than walking his dog, shot a 3-under 69 on Friday – after an opening 66 – to take a two-stroke lead midway through the second round.
With blustery showers forecast for the late starters on a weather-hit day on the Old Course, Willett had a good chance of being the leader heading into the weekend. The last five winners of the Open at St. Andrews have had at least a share of the lead after two rounds.
“It’s a childhood dream,” Willett said in his strong Yorkshire accent. “Looking at the leaderboard, it’s still a little bit surreal.”
Casual golf fans are unlikely to know much, if anything, about Willett. In his post-round news conference, he was even asked by American journalists to give a brief resume of his life and golf career.
He has quite a back-story.
Willett, the world’s No. 39, quit college at age 16 after just a month, went to Jacksonville State University in the United States, and dedicated his life to golf. He was the top-ranked amateur when he decided to turn professional in 2008. A year earlier, in the British Amateur Championship, he played Rory McIlroy – currently the world’s top player – in the final and went 5 up after six holes before winning on No. 17.
It’s taken longer than expected for Willett to fulfil his potential on the professional circuit but this could be the year he does. He won the season’s first event, the Nedbank Golf Challenge, for his second European Tour title and then reached the semifinals of the WGC-Cadillac Match Play, finishing third.
Now he’s eyeing the claret jug.
“Amateur and professional golf are very, very different but it put me in good stead,” Willett said. “It made me believe that I could compete with the best of them.
“It’s a work in progress and it’s nice that it’s come off this week.”
Tied for second place after a first-round 66 posted in the toughest of the opening-day conditions, Willett predicted “Armageddon” on Friday because of the rain and wind forecast. He awoke at 5 a.m. local time to torrential rain that waterlogged the fairways and greens on the Old Course and led to play being suspended for more than three hours.
Willett returned to his hotel beside the 17th fairway and went back to bed for an hour. He started his round under blue skies and with a gusty wind, and birdied three holes on the outward nine including a 30-footer on No. 5.
When he rolled in a birdie putt from six feet at No. 10, Willett led by three shots and could have made it four on No. 16, only to slide a putt by the hole. He three-putted for bogey on No. 17 and rectified that by birdying the last.
There were sporadic shouts of “Go, Danny boy” during his round but the crowds following Willett’s group, which also had Gary Woodland and Thongchai Jaidee, were small considering it contained the Open leader.
Willett will receive much more attention Saturday, something the guy with a “relatively normalish life” says he’ll relish.
At the Nedbank in Sun City, he showed he can handle the pressure of being leader by shooting 65 and 66 over the weekend to see off Luke Donald.
And Willett said St. Andrews suits his game.
“To see your name at the top of the leaderboard … is something you need to embrace and you need to get used to,” he said, “otherwise you’re going to have a pretty tough weekend.”