Forgive me personalising this, but my current golfing situation illustrates the vagaries of a game that gives us so much pleasure yet still drives us to distraction. I write this having accrued the princely sum of twelve points in last night’s nine hole stableford – thank goodness for the “five for three” on the penultimate hole. Twelve months ago I was basking in the glow of my handicap tumbling to 7, equalling my personal best in forty maddening years of trying to master the game. Right now, though, I don’t know if I’m going to hit my stock draw or push it miles right off the tee. Irons can be thin or fat but rarely a perfect fit and who knows whether a chip will be chunked or bladed. And don’t get me started on putting.
Last year it all seemed so simple. By September I was down to a personal best of 5.5 – within touching distance of a 5 handicap, surely the club golfer’s barometer of a pretty decent standard. Since then it has been nothing other than a string of “point ones” being added to my handicap. Eleven in a row to be precise. And while we amateurs play a totally different game to the top pro’s we can, surely, empathise with the leading stars when their form deserts them. As Rory McIlroy has often said, when you are playing well you have no idea what it is like to play bad golf and when it isn‘t going well it is difficult to imagine the times when good scoring feels easy.
So imagine how someone such as Danny Willett is feeling at the moment. In April last year he was crowned Masters champion after a brilliant finish at Augusta. What is more, he had been trending towards such a big win with plenty of high finishes, including victory at the Dubai Desert Classic earlier in the year. He knew where his drives were going, approaches fitted his eye and getting up and down was a doddle. However, swinging a club with a proverbial green jacket on his shoulders has proved anything but straightforward for the 29 year old Englishman. At the recent BMW PGA Championship he jokingly tweeted about the unfamiliar feeling of donning his weekend colours because they have so rarely been required due to a string of missed cuts. Willett’s final two rounds were 76-73 as he finished 58th. Twelve months earlier he was the highest ranked player in the field and finished third.
Since then he was runner up in the Italian Open and has had only two other top tens. There was a Ryder Cup debut in which he lost all three of his matches and five missed cuts as well as a withdrawal with back problems from the Players Championship. Winning one of the big four tournaments that define careers provides no guarantee for future tournaments. Indeed, adjusting to the status of being a major champion can hinder rather than help a player’s form. At last month’s Players Championship, Sergio Garcia talked about feeling a pressure to play like a Masters champion. He was struggling to an outward 40 in his first competitive outing since his Augusta triumph.
For some players scaling the heights of winning a major is such a crowning moment it is hard to maintain the standards that took them to this elevated level. This was the case for 2005 US Open winner Michael Campbell who is no longer on tour after several miserable seasons of trying and failing to return to the heights of his golden year. There are also the distractions that come with sponsor and media commitments that were never there before.
“It’s the one area people tend to forget, how busy you get off the golf course,” Open champion Henrik Stenson, who has struggled for success since his Troon victory, told me. “I’ve got a few more years experience than Danny and a few of the other guys who have been in similar situations. “It’s hard to say no and there are a lot of demands for your attention and if you are signing autographs, taking pictures and doing interviews then that doesn’t normally help your golf game. “So you’ve got to find that balance.”
Digging yourself out of a rut in the public eye is never easy, but at least Willett possesses the talent and work ethic to restore his form and confidence. And time is on his side. Sadly, I’m not sure the same applies to me but I will keep trying. Time for a lesson methinks.