Masters champ Willett eyes back-to-back majors at Oakmont

He wants to prove he’s more than a fortuitous Sunday in Georgia

Danny Willett speaks to the media Tuesday at Oakmont Country Club. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Danny Willett speaks to the media Tuesday at Oakmont Country Club. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Life, at least as he knew it, was never going to be the same for Danny Willett after his victory at the Masters in April.

The win in the hallowed tournament, the first major of his career, transformed the talented but relatively little-known 28-year-old into a star. Sure, some people had known about Willett, the world’s 12th-ranked golfer at the time. But the green jacket granted him a certain standing, one many golfers spend their entire careers failing to reach.

In the two months since his win at Augusta, Willett can’t remember a practice session or a tournament without a camera or microphone nearby. Stripped of the low profile he once had, a man who used to play in sheep pastures growing up finds it difficult being himself under the gaze of the public eye.

Now, as if winning the Masters weren’t challenging enough, comes the tricky part for Willett. He wants to prove he’s more than a fortuitous Sunday in Georgia, a quest that will begin in earnest at this week’s U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.

“Obviously, yeah, it’s nice that you’ve already got one, but because you’ve already got one, you want another one and another one and another one,” Willett said Tuesday. “I think you put the pressure on yourself inside.”

The Masters champ says U.S. Open courses can be brutal and golfers must be careful at Oakmont. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Willett’s achievement itself wasn’t unexpected; the way in which it played out, though, was something that has added to the Englishman’s heightened profile.

Jordan Spieth held a five-stroke lead entering the back nine of the final round, but from there, his game unraveled. He quadruple-bogeyed the 12th hole, the lowlight of a historic collapse. Willett, with a final round score of 67, rose from a tie for eighth place entering the day to the top of the leader board by the end of it.

As the drama was unfolding, Willett’s brother, Peter, was providing an amusing (and sometimes alcohol-fueled) stream of commentary on Twitter, only adding to the charm of his brother’s rise. Willett was the first European in 17 years and only the second Englishman to win at Augusta, but his victory did something more. In a sport being overtaken by a group of four or five prodigious young players, he became a new face to watch.

The euphoria of the accomplishment has yet to fully wear off, if it ever will. Now, he must try to recapture that combination of talent and timing that allowed him to win such a prominent event.

Willett became the 213th golfer to win a major, 132 of whom (62 percent) captured only one major in their career. It’s a list littered with the likes of Orville Moody and Rich Beem, men who enjoyed their moment in the sun only to never return.

The pressure and desire to capture that second major — to legitimize oneself in some ways — is real for many golfers.

“As athletes, we want to keep getting better,” said Ernie Els, who won his first of four majors at the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont. “Some of us have huge margins that we can enclose, and other guys are so good that they keep getting better, the margins are much smaller.”

Willett has played in just one PGA Tour event since the Masters, last month’s Players Championship, where he missed the cut. The history of reigning Masters champions at U.S. Opens at Oakmont is checkered. Ben Hogan won it in 1953, but nobody has done so since. Three of the past four winners, in fact, haven’t finished better than 45th.

Balancing elation with a renewed focus has been tough at times, but Willett is prepared to try to further build his career and reverse some of that recent history. “Not that it’s going to wear off ever, but there is now another job at hand, and that’s trying to get as well prepared as we can for this week.”

Craig Meyer: and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.