AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) – Danny Willett relished a return to the scene of his greatest triumph as the Englishman turned back the clock at Augusta National on Thursday to put himself into contention with a rock-solid start to the Masters.
Willet, who missed the cut in four of the last five Masters since his 2016 triumph, mixed two bogeys with five birdies in windy conditions for a three-under par 69 that marked his best opening round at Augusta National.
The Sheffield native, who became the first British player to win a Green Jacket since Nick Faldo triumphed in 1996, said he has been enjoying good vibes all week.
“It is nice to be back. It is just really nice to be back on the property,” said Willett, who along with world number one Scottie Scheffler and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, was one shot back of early clubhouse leader Cameron Smith of Australia.
“You can’t come to this place and not wake up every morning with a smile on your face. I think it’s impossible.”
Willett arrived at the year’s first major under the radar with just one top-25 finish and four missed cuts in his nine PGA Tour events this season.
The most recent of his eight victories on the European Tour came at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews last October on his 34th birthday.
Willet birdied each of Augusta National’s four par-five holes, the last coming at the 15th where he drained a 23-foot putt before closing with three pars.
“Just a really good clean round of golf in what is really tricky conditions,” said Willett.
“We all know you’re not going to be that far off around this golf course to make it really difficult for yourself.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)