Whenever it comes to Danny Willett having to discuss his career post Masters glory, the analysis always mentions 'painful experiences'. But of all his lowlights in the last three years, perhaps none have made the audience wince quite like his BMW PGA Championship recollections.
“When I was here last year, I could barely walk because I’d just had a vasectomy,” Willett revealed. “So it’s nice to be back with a spring in my step.”
Willett cuts a different figure in every sense. The 31-year-old’s second round 65 on another beautiful day in the Surrey countryside, hurtled him to 11-under and into a tie for the lead with Spain's Jon Rahm. This was the Willett who cracked the elite in 2016, who donned green when no outsider truly thought it was possible and who looked so assured in the world’s top 10.
The downfall was swift, if not merciless, and so he was obliged to play in the marquee groups, with all the adulation but with no sense of justification.
"You're really trying to smile and put a brave face on, but the truth is I wasn't enjoying it and I wasn't playing well," he added. "It was embarrassing - they'd come and paid money for a ticket and they want to see good golf and I wasn't playing any. They really didn't want to see someone walking around who has a pretty nice life but who looked grumpy as sin.
"I wouldn't say I'm back to my best. We're still working on the moves and there's still shots in there that I don't like. But the body is night and day to where it was, the ability to travel around the world and play golf is back and I'm just in a much better place with everything. It's now enjoyable to be playing it and feeling good about yourself in front of the crowds. I am confident about giving them what they paid for now.”
The first five holes were particularly box office. Willett, the world No 58, was one-under “threes” having started 3-3-3-3-2. “I’d even have been delighted with that on a par-three course,” he quipped. As it was there were three birdies and an eagle on the fourth as he zoomed forwards from four-under overnight to nine-under. There were further birdies on the ninth, 11th and 12th until a bogey on the 14th checked his charge. Yet, with four pars to finish, there was no reason to be anything other than content with a morning’s work in the September sun.
“It’s all seemed to work from here last year,” he said. “We still only have two young boys and no more children, so that procedure was definitely successful, and this weekend there is a really good leaderboard and I’ve myself in a position to be right up there."
The scoreboard is a sponsor’s dream. Rahm, the world No6, eagled the 18th and must be the favourite for a victory that could take the brilliant 24-year-old to the top of the European Tour’s order of merit. While in a tie for third alongside the Swede Henrik Stenson and South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout on nine-under is another Englishman in Justin Rose after a 68.
It has been a gusty performance by the world No4 considering the fact he arrived here with a jarred knee. “I slipped as I was getting into the swimming pool on the stag do of my agent [Paul McDonnell] in the south of France last Thursday,” he said.
“Honestly, I’d only been there for half an hour and as stag do injuries go, it was pretty tame. It hurt when I woke this morning, but it’s OK when I’m swinging the club. I’m really pleased to be where I am, if I think that I didn’t have much of a preparation.”
Again, the attendance tipped the 20,000 mark and the 25,000-plus expected on Saturday will have the bonus of watching Rory McIlroy out among the early starters. The world No 2 gallantly fought his way inside the cut-mark, starting at four-over and shooting a 69 to advance to one-over. There was a chip-in birdie on the 16th and a nervy par on the 18th, when he holed a four-footer for the necessary par. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.