Omega Dubai Desert Classic: Danny Willett purring after being paired with Tiger Woods

“When Tiger is here, it makes it that little bit extra special,” said Willett, who watched “pretty much every shot” on television of Woods’s PGA Tour comeback at Torrey Pines last week.

DUBAI // Danny Willett is reigning Masters champion, defending champion at this week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and a self-confessed Tiger Woods fan.

The Englishman, one of the leading lights on the European Tour in his own right, suggested as much on Tuesday when he waxed lyrical about the star power Woods brings on his return to Emirates Golf Club.

“When Tiger is here, it makes it that little bit extra special,” said Willett, who watched “pretty much every shot” on television of Woods’ PGA Tour comeback at Torrey Pines last week. “It’s great to have him back playing and it’s great for the game. And fortunately enough, I’ll be able to be around all week to witness it.”

In fact, Willett has front-row seats to the show. The European Tour has paired him with Woods for the first two rounds alongside compatriot Matt Fitzpatrick, which is just as well given that Willett has not spent any considerable time around the 14-time major champion.

“I’ve not actually met him properly,” Willett said.

“The Ryder Cup was a brief walking past but before that, you see him to say ‘hello’, but nothing really.”

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Willett credits Woods in part for his own rise through the game. The famous chip-in on the 16th at the 2005 Masters represents his first memory of Woods, when the American celebrated wildly with caddie Steve Williams en route to a fourth Green Jacket, that still stands.

“It was almost like the perfect advert for that tournament,” Willett said. “I remember that shot being played over millions and millions of times, him and Stevie going crazy, the cameras shaking and the ball just dropping in.

“It’s those moments he created for guys that are my age that really spurred them on to train harder and to practice harder and to try and accomplish even a minuscule amount of what he has.”

Win this week, and Willett will match a Tiger feat: two victories in Dubai. He was a deserving victor last year, when he holed a testing 15-foot putt on the final hole to triumph by one shot over Andy Sullivan and Rafa Cabrera Bello.

It set up Willett nicely to join Woods in the major-winner’s circle, for two months later he won at the Masters – his first major title. Obviously Dubai helped lay the foundations.

“Yeah, this was the start of what was really an amazing season,” he said. “At Augusta, I could draw on Dubai quite a lot how I played and how I played under pressure and how I composed myself mentally and having to hole a few key putts at the right time. You look at Augusta on the back nine and that kind of typifies that perfectly.”

“Perfect” would not be how Willett would describe his last competitive outing. He struggled badly two weeks ago at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, shooting 74-76 to finish fifth last and miss the cut. Willett remained in the capital for a few extra days, and has spent the intervening period practicing extensively on correcting chiefly a damaging left-pull. Yet he saw enough in Abu Dhabi to convince himself another strong year lays ahead.

“I was actually not too disheartened,” Willett said. “I had thrown some terrible golf shots in there, but I wasn’t far away. I’ve been working really hard, as I always do. The back end of last season, I was practicing just because I felt I should be practicing.

“So it’s nice to get that little bit of fire back into your belly and to actually want to come back out and want to do the things that we did last year. It’s going to be hard to match last year, but we’re going to try our best to do so.”

Emulating his victory of 12 months ago would be a start. Granted, it might seem slightly more difficult with Woods in the field, despite his lengthy injury lay-off and world No 666 ranking, but Willett is ready to go two-for-two in the emirate.

“Tiger doesn’t play events just because he wants to play them,” he said.

“He plays because he knows he’s got a good chance when he turns up. He’s played well around this golf course and he’s got some good memories.

“He’s going to come here and try and win. That’s great for The European Tour to have arguably the greatest player of all time come to Dubai and to try and take that championship trophy away on Sunday. So there’s a few of us that are going to try and stop him.”

Willett sought to put a halt on any blowback from the storm that engulfed him at the Ryder Cup in October. Days out from his tournament debut, his brother made some ill-advised comments about American fans in an online article, resulting in some pretty nasty remarks directed towards Willett at Hazeltine National. He promptly lost all three matches.

Asked if he envisaged any lasting affects from the Ryder Cup when he next tees it up Stateside, at the Honda Classic on February 23, Willett joked: “What, me playing bad? I think they will welcome me with open arms. Playing terrible, giving them a few points, I think they’ll be all right with that.”

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