E.A. Sports Today

Harrell recalls Willett fondly

White Plains golf coach played with Willett the day British Open contender decided to leave JSU

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

Long before anyone around here really knew golfer Danny Willett was going to leave school to make his big push to become one of the best players in the world and a contender in the oldest major championship, Marcus Harrell knew.

The two were teammates at Jacksonville State seven years ago — roommates on the road — and it was Harrell with whom Willett confided he was leaving after 2½ years to pursue his dream to become Champion Golfer of the Year.

Today, Willett is one shot off the 36-hole lead in the British Open after Saturday’s long-delayed completion of the second round. He was the overnight leader in the tournament he holds most dear until Dustin Johnson drove and birdied the 18th once the players returned to the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Harrell, now the White Plains golf coach, wasn’t surprised by Willett’s declaration so many years ago; the signs were becoming “more and more obvious” every day that final year. But, still, he admitted being torn by the news.

“He told me during that round he was leaving to turn pro and was headed after that round to tell Coach (James) Hobbs the news,” Harrell said. “When he told me I had different emotions, for sure.

“I was losing a great teammate, somebody we had a lot of great experiences with. My first year we won a conference championship and made the NCAA regionals and into the second year we had a lot of success. Any time you lose a player like that it’s going to hurt, but how can I be upset with a guy who gets to fulfill his dreams?

“You see so many players who are so good through high school and college and everybody has the same exact goal, but it’s nice to see one of us who had the same goal be able to play at such a high level and achieve it. To see him actually get to compete for the tournament he wanted more than any in the world I think is pretty cool.”

Harrell smiled fondly when he recalled their debates about the most coveted championship to win. Harrell would argue the Masters, but for Willett it was always The Open Championship.

Now, he’s 36 holes away from holding the claret jug. He goes into Sunday’s third round at 9-under-par.

Actually, Harrell played a lot of important rounds with Willett. He played his first round of qualifying at JSU with him and the last round Willett ever played with the Gamecocks. Beat him by three shots in that final round, too.

“I told him you know you’re never going to live it down I beat you in the final round,” Harrell said.

Harrell never doubted his former teammate was going to make it on some tour. Everybody on their level hits the ball a long way, but it was Willett’s short game that set him apart from most.

He even sought to learn Willett’s short-game technique he still uses in his own game to this day.

“I’ve never seen anybody who had the touch and short game skill he did; it was on a different level,” Harrell said. “We hit and hope it gets in a certain area. He’d step off nine to 40 yards away and he’d land it on a leaf every single time. It was unreal. Anybody who leads the NCAA in short-game up-and-down for two years is going to make it.”

Because of the wind delay Saturday Willett never got to play and the whole tournament was pushed to a Monday finish. It gave him an entire day off to rest or think about what he had done.

Knowing Willett as he does, Harrell is confident he wasn’t bored with the down time.

“He stayed busy the whole entire time,” Harrell suspected. “He’s a very aggressive player, not very patient and he was always antsy, ready to work and ready to do the next thing. I’m sure he was very revved up. There’s no way he was going to be able to sit still, for sure.”

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