Not many of us had heard of Danny Willett when we turned up for the 2007 Amateur Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes. We knew all about him after the first day of match play.
In fact, we couldn’t shut him up!
All eyes on this day 13 years ago were mainly on one player: Rory McIlroy. He was the talk of Amateur Golf. Even Lloyd Saltman’s four straight wins to start the summer – the Scottish Champion of Champions, Craigmiller Park Open, Lytham Trophy and Irish Open Stroke Play – couldn’t deny the belief McIlroy was going to be the player to beat that week. (Saltman lost in the quarter finals to Chris Wood.)
Willett was a 19-year-old from Rotherham who had just returned from Jacksonville State University. He was known in his native Yorkshire, but relatively, if not completely, unknown for journalists covering that Amateur Championship. Back in the day when golf journalists actually covered the Amateur Championship.
McIlroy had disappointed the year before when he only played one round of qualifying at Royal St George’s. Rory shot 78 in strong winds over the Open Championship course and didn’t play the following day at Prince’s Golf Club due to illness.
He didn’t duck out at Royal Lytham & St Annes and St Annes Old Links. Rory shot 69 at St Annes and 71 at Lytham to qualify for the match play draw by one shot. Willett was three shots better with rounds of 71 at Lytham and 66 at St Annes.
Most of us thought Rory would win at a canter when we saw the match play draw that pitted the two together at 10:15am. Deep down, Willett probably thought his Amateur Championship would consist of one round and done. He said he was “shocked” when he saw he was drawn to play the Northern Ireland wunderkind.
As the old saying goes, anything can happen in 18-hole match play and probably will. So it proved on that Wednesday 13 years ago. The Englishman is probably still surprised at how easy it was to beat McIlroy. He was five up after seven holes!
Rory managed to reduce the deficit to two holes by the 11th, but Willett made a birdie at the 14th to go three up with four to play and that was basically that. Willett closed out the match with a par at the 17th hole to win 2&1.
As is customary when such a big upset occurs, we invited Willett into the press tent to tell us how he’d managed to defeat the star of the show. All we were after was the birdies and bogeys, the highlights and a few quotes. If you think Willett is effusive now, you should have heard him back then.
Young Danny described all 17 holes, including his own shots and Rory’s too! He was on such a high, we didn’t have the heart to tell him to stop. He must’ve spoken for 25 minutes. Here’s the quote I used for my Golfweek story:
“I’d read lots about him and knew how good a player he was. I knew I’d have to bring my game. I was looking forward to it though because I’ve been rolling the ball well.”
Unfortunately, or fortunately for our ears, Willett lost 5&3 in the next round to Scotland’s Kevin McAlpine. Drew Weaver became the first American since 1979 to win the title, and many of thought that might be the last we’d hear of Danny Willett.
How wrong were we?
Willett wasn’t in the Walker Cup squad at the start of the year, but victories in the English Amateur and South of England Championship catapulted him into the 10-man team along with Rory.
The Yorkshireman might not have gone on to as much fame as the boy he beat 13 years ago, but a Masters win and six other European Tour wins including the 2019 BMW PGA Championship and 2018 DP World Tour Championship, Dubai proves he had every right to say whatever he wanted 13 years ago.