Born in 1954, Willett spent his life as a professional, playing for champions such as Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazábal, but his career actually spanned many more years
The ‘Rain Man of golf’ who amazed even the greats of the sport
The imagination of Luke Willett is best described as the “Rain Man” – having been born in 1954, he spent his life as a professional, playing for champions such as Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazábal, but his career actually spanned many more years.
Willett is a former world No8 who was only 21 years old in 1998 when he won his first PGA Tour title in the event he always dreamed of playing in, the Honda Classic. But a terrible fall three years later while hunting ducks in the UK meant that he had to give up on his dream. “There was a realisation that I was unlikely to get back to the level of form and maturity required for the position I needed to fill,” he said.
The golfer attempts to birdie the hole on 16 during his final round. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/Getty Images
His return to the pro circuit didn’t come easy. He barely won any tournaments, but two of his biggest epiphanies arrived during his later years.
One came at age 33 when his approach to the 1997 US Masters at Augusta National was challenged by the great Nick Faldo in a head-to-head challenge that Willett won easily. The other came after he won his second European Tour event at the HSBC Champions in 2003, when a pre-round argument with Olazábal about the course actually became more of a bet than an argument about a course, and when the Spaniard chipped in to beat him.
Willett won his fourth European Tour title in 2008, and that victory had the impact of changing his career, said Willett in an interview with Golfweek magazine. The victory strengthened his belief in his game and enabled him to play under the magnificence of nature and forget what had befallen him.
“There were so many great memories from playing in the Ryder Cup and everything else but I loved that championship more than anything else,” he said. “To win the US Open back in 2008 definitely has the stamp of the trophy that I want to one day win, as well. It gave me an immense amount of confidence that if I really tried I could come back and get things sorted out.”
Luke Willett launches his 2017/18 Champions Tour season at the age of 38. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
He was thrilled that he could put it all together. He is planning to be a workaholic when he retires, as that will help him keep the emotions under control. “I had been living and playing the game until 27, then I went for three years and went sideways,” he said. “But I realised it was a bad period in my life and then you want to take it all away. All this is getting me ready to try and do that.”
He does believe that this “waiting game” will help, as he has learnt what happens if he is sad or depressed. “All that stuff comes back to you and keeps you conscious. It’s a long-lasting healing thing, like anything else.”
The 2004 winner of the Valspar Championship and the 2004 John Deere Classic, Willett could give Europe’s Ryder Cup team a boost. Now 38, he has enjoyed three consecutive top-10 finishes in qualifying, with an eagle at the South African Open on the last day securing the 12th and final qualifying spot.
He will compete in the rain-affected Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey starting on Monday, the first of eight consecutive exempt tournaments on the PGA Tour.
“I do feel like I am more mature at this stage,” he said. “My temperament doesn’t cause me as much stress or stress when I hit the shot I want. I’m looking forward to it.”
Willett will most likely play better than he was last year when he tied for 88th place at the Abu Dhabi Championship. But his triumph in 2007, which followed a runner-up finish the year before, still holds a special place. “There was a realisation that I was unlikely to get back to the level of form and maturity required for the position I needed to fill,” he said. “I wanted to.”