Masters champ Willett seeks to join elite company
Danny Willett enters the 116th U.S. Open feeling somewhat loose and confident.
He already has a green jacket stashed away at his home in England. The burden of winning a major lifted when he won the Masters in April.
Now, Willett has even greater aspirations.
He wants to defy the incalculable odds of winning the calendar grand slam — an inconceivable ambition that Jordan Spieth flirted with in 2015 after posting wins at both the Masters and U.S. Open.
“I'm relatively surprised no one has done it,” Willett said. “I honestly can't see it happening too much, quite honestly because of the strength of the field. You had more of a chance back in the day, but even then you had Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.”
First, the world's ninth-ranked player must negotiate a hurdle cleared only by Spieth and Tiger Woods since 1974. They are the only golfers to win the first two majors since Jack Nicklaus accomplished that feat more than four decades ago.
“What Jordan did last year was awesome,” said Willett, coming off a third-place finish at the BMW PGA Championship. “We hadn't seen that since Tiger's day. You look at the standard of golf through the field, and if (Justin) Rose is fit and well, it's projected that all top 50 (players) are going to play this week, which hasn't happened that much over the last 10 years.
“You look at the strength of the field, and it would be fantastic to even be somewhere thereabouts come Sunday. We're just going to have to play golf and see what happens.”
Oakmont covers more than 7,200 yards and will demand tremendous discipline from a golfer who relied heavily on patience and resiliency to capitalize on Spieth's collapse at Augusta.
Like Spieth, Willett feels mentally fit to take on Oakmont. He isn't overly concerned about the usually inescapable fairway bunkers and penal rough, mostly because his Masters victory bolstered his confidence.
“I guess it's easier a little bit in the sense that you've already won a major, so you're not trying to push massively hard,” said Willett, who missed the cut at the Players Championship. “It's something we try to tell ourselves to distract from how big these occasions are. You try to play it down to free it up a little bit.”
This U.S. Open, though, might be the most difficult to earn. Angel Cabrera won the title in 2007 with a 5-over score.
Willett, who played nine holes on Tuesday, said the stimpmeter reading on the greens was running 13 to 14. But he said position off the tee could be the most decisive factor throughout the tournament.
“I think (Oakmont) gives you lot of options off the tee, depending upon how aggressive you want to play,” Willett said. “But then you have to be really careful on where you place your ball around the green. The onus is on fairways and greens this week, definitely, to try to give yourself the easiest way of making par.”
Willett's preferred plan of attack will be to hit mid- to long-irons out of the middle of the fairway. He would rather not put a driver in the thick rough, where he'll be forced to muscle a wedge onto the greens.
“I was watching (Angel) Cabrera a little bit in '07, and he was relatively aggressive off the tee,” said Willett, who missed the cut at last year's U.S. Open. “But you have to be careful where you putt the ball around the greens.”
Willett, like Spieth, figures the path to victory at Oakmont is simple: fairways and greens.
In 2007, however, driving accuracy didn't matter as much. Only two golfers ranked in the top in accuracy off the tee finished in the top 10.
“That really shocked me,” Spieth said. “That goes against everything I've been saying, which is you've got to put the ball in the fairway off the tee here — or else it's so hard to just hit it around the green, let alone on the green.
“Fairways or first cut, I think, is the most important statistic for me to focus on this week. Looking back, it wasn't that important at the last U.S. Open, and I can't seem to fathom why.”
Still, Willett figures finding the fairway is the best chance of winning his second major in a row.
“Around this place, you're not going to see too many birdies,” Willett said. “You have to limit your mistakes when you get out of position. Hopefully, we can make life as stress free as possible.”