BIRMINGHAM, England – No less than 24 of the world’s finest golfers played in the Ryder Cup this month. Tiger Woods stalked the course as a U.S. team vice-captain. Michael Jordan held court from a hospitality balcony. Bill Murray fired up the crowd with nationalistic chants. Hazeltine National heaved under the weight of celebrity, both on the fairways and greens and among the galleries.
Yet the biggest story of the event became a man with a laptop thousands of miles away. Pete Willett, brother of Masters champion Danny, unwittingly sparked a frenzy of controversy with a pre-tournament column for a British golf industry magazine in which he referenced the antics of some American fans.
The piece provided plenty of juicy language, saying that elements of the crowd to be expected at the Ryder Cup would resemble a “baying mob of imbeciles” filled with “pudgy, basement-dwelling irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and pissy beer.”
Cue anger, outrage, defensive nationalism, apologies from Team Europe and hostility aimed at Danny Willett.
“At no point did I intend to upset the entire American golf nation,” Pete Willett said, shaking his head and smiling, as he talked to USA TODAY Sports at a pub near his home this week. “The funny thing is that I love America and Americans. I lived in Indiana for four months. My wife and I honeymooned in Miami. It became completely surreal how it played out.”
The thing that was missed amid the furor was the intention. Pete Willett is a high school drama teacher for whom writing about sports is a sideline, and his style is one of sarcastic humor. Taken in its full form it was clear the content was meant as satire. However, once the snappiest sound bytes were parsed and reprinted, Willett, whose audience is typically around 10,000 readers, was suddenly cast as the biggest villain of the American golf community.
“(Americans) are different to us,” said Pete Willett, four years older than his brother at 33. “The humor is different, the patriotism is different. I knew that but that didn’t prepare me for what happened. My thing is that my writing makes fun of others but I make sure that I also make fun of myself.
“My Ryder Cup piece was ‘look at all these idiots’ but then I also wanted to show that I am just as stupid as anyone.”
The seeds for his writing career were planted in April, when Danny won the Masters with a final day 67 to beat Jordan Spieth and Lee Westwood. During the closing stages, Pete posted a series of humorous Twitter messages. He spoke of his pride that he could now say he had “shared a bathtub with a Masters champion” and that Danny should refuse the iconic victor’s jacket – “green makes you look fat.”
Pete’s writing had sparked the interest of some golf publications. One of them, National Club Golfer, signed him to a deal for five columns, on the understanding that they would feature the same kind of scathing humor. The Ryder Cup story was his third.
“I was writing it back home in my nightgown and I never thought, ‘Oh yes, this will get them all talking,’ ” he said. “I felt it was my best work yet. I read it and I thought ‘This is funny, they will get it.’ “
They didn’t get it.
The headlines rolled in, and the hostility from the crowd sparked up.
The U.S. roared to a 4-0 lead on the opening morning, and Danny Willett was left out of the session by captain Darren Clarke, a decision widely assumed to have been prompted by the ruckus over the article. It was the start of a miserable event in which the man who conquered Augusta failed to win a point.
It is for that reason, and that reason only, why his brother glances to the past with a tinge of regret.
“If I was given the opportunity to have never have written it I would take that opportunity,” Pete said. “What it caused, I would rather hadn’t happened.
“Specifically for Danny. He was at the Ryder Cup and he had a distraction I wish he didn’t have. However, the defensive part of me would always say the reason there was an issue was because of the reaction to the article rather than the article itself. I will always maintain it was a good article.
“It was hideous to watch (the Ryder Cup). I was gutted that Danny didn’t get in the morning foursomes. When that got announced the obvious thought was ‘What part have I played in that?’ I think I would be foolish to say it was nothing to do with me. That stung a bit.”
The Willett brothers hashed out their differences before play had begun in a telephone conversation hours after the story blew up.
Danny is currently on the road, trying to hold onto his lead in the European Tour’s season-ending Road to Dubai series. As always, the family will come together to celebrate Christmas. Next year, Pete and his family expect to attend several events, perhaps one in Switzerland, where this year Danny flew in a group of his relatives on a private plane.
It is a tight-knit family with four brothers and interaction based on humor that revolves around unapologetic ribbing.
“I am still proud of the article,” Pete said. “In a roundabout way I mean every word. I do take the piss out of those who scream out at shots because they are idiots. And I do love the Ryder Cup and go completely over the top in my excitement for it.”
What he wants more than anything is understanding, a realization that much of what he says is meant in jest, or at least embellished with that aim. He will write again and we shouldn’t necessarily expect the tone to be that much different, although the timing likely will be more carefully constructed. More abuse will come in his direction, and he welcomes it.
“Next time, instead of getting angry, just take the piss out of me,” Willett said. “I love trash talk, it is really good fun. Make fun of me. Say something cutting or funny and try to make me feel stupid. I love it. I’m ready for it.”