PINEHURST, N.C. — Whether Daniel Willett’s back is ready or not, here comes the former Jacksonville State University golfer’s next major opportunity.
The 26-year-old Willett will make his U.S. Open debut when he tees off at 1:20 p.m. today at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, along with pairing partners Cory Whitsett and Luke Guthrie of the United States.
Willett qualified from the Walton Heath sectional in Surrey, England, as a first alternate.
He’s in the field, so the question becomes whether his back can hold up against the U.S. Open challenge.
“I’m hoping that he’s well enough to come play and play a hundred percent,” JSU coach James Hobbs said.
From Sheffield, England, Willett turned pro in 2008, after becoming Europe’s No. 2 amateur and the world’s No. 1. He has played mostly in the European Tour and mounted more than $5 million in winnings, including $308,496 this year.
The U.S. Open at Pinehurst will mark his sixth PGA start, including two in the PGA Championship and one in the British Open. He’s made three PGA cuts, finishing tied for 15th in last year’s British Open and tied for 40th in the PGA Championship.
His current official world golf ranking is 134th, and he’s been in the top 100.
His lone professional victory came at BMW International Open on the European Tour in a four-hole playoff in Cologne, Germany, over Marcus Fraser. Willett also won the 2007 English Amateur and 2008 Spanish Amateur.
He spent two seasons at JSU, where he won the 2006 Ohio Valley Conference title. He was a member of 2007 Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup Team.
Hobbs said Willett’s professional breakthroughs have made waves for JSU’s programs.
“When a guy can reach that level of play, that just kind of puts a cap on what we’re trying to do here and the quality of players we’ve had and the quality of teams,” Hobbs said. “When you get a guy playing our championship, a major championship, it says a lot for our recruiting.”
The question going into this week is whether Willett’s back is equal to the opportunity.
Hobbs said he’s unsure of the nature of Willett’s back problems but heard through a former assistant coach who knows Willett’s caddy that “he’s been struggling.”
“It’s probably just lower back problems, and that’s the worst kind of back problems you can have in golf — lower back,” Hobbs said. “He struggled with it a couple of years ago, and it kind of put a cloud over his season.
“I’m hoping he’s going to be well. I’m hoping he’s going to be able to play a hundred percent, and I’m hoping he plays well.”