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Willey puts thoughts of Texas on ice

 

Andy Willey will attempt to forget all thoughts of realising a burning golfing ambition when he defends his Titleist and FootJoy PGA Professional Championship title at Hunstanton next week.

The ambition is representing Great Britain and Ireland in the PGA Cup and six places in the 10-strong team to take on the USA in Austin, Texas, in late September will be determined by performances in this and last year’s PGA Professional Championship.

Having won the event at Little Aston last year, Willey is in pole position to claim his place in Cameron Clark’s team. He has 20 points, one clear of Paul O’Hara, runner up last year and winner in 2017, and two ahead of James Freeman, who finished third.

However, with this year’s points worth one-and-half times more than those on offer in 2018 there is plenty of scope for change and, for players who did not fare so well 12 months ago, a big opportunity to claim a place in the team.

All of which is not lost on Willey.

“Playing in the PGA Cup is an unfulfilled ambition,” he said. “It’s high on my list of things to achieve but I’m trying not to think about that. My main focus is to try and defend the title and I’ll just try and play my normal game.”

Given the venue and the vagaries links golf can present, Willey knows he is likely to have to adapt his normal game to remain in contention in the PGA’s most prestigious tournament that carries a £78,000 prize fund with £10,000 going to the winner.

Hunstanton has been described by three-time Ryder Cup captain and PGA captain-elect Bernard Gallacher as a ‘classic links course and true championship test of golf’.

Overlooking The Wash on England’s east coast and wending its way through dunes, can be made even more challenging by winds gusting in from the North Sea.

Willey, who played it a couple of months ago with a fellow competitor, Wollaton Park Golf Club’s Lee Clarke, added: “We enjoyed it. I enjoy playing a links golf course – the problem is we don’t play them often enough. We might play them once a year. Or twice a year, tops.

“Last year we played Saunton in the English PGA Championship and that was it. This year it’s Hunstanton. Links courses present different challenges to the ones we normally face, especially the ways the balls can bounce. It’s just trying to adapt pretty quickly.”

Willey, who is attached to Oakmere Golf Club, Nottinghamshire, goes into the tournament in fine form.

Three-time European Tour winner Andy Sullivan had to hole a 40 foot putt for an eagle on the final hole to pip him for victory in the Nuneaton Golf Club Pro-Am, and he also finished second behind 2017 PGA Assistants’ Championship winner Matt Fieldsend in the Oxley Park Pro-Am.

No-one could catch him in last week’s Kedleston Park Pro-Am, however. Not even Matt Cort.

Cort, who is in the field at Hunstanton and has already qualified for the PGA Cup team as a result of a top three place the PGA Play Offs at Antalya Golf Club, Turkey, negotiated the Open Championship regional qualifying venue in seven-under.

But Willey went one-better with an eight-under-par round of 64 to claim the £2,000 winner’s cheque – the biggest individual prize on offer in the PGA Midland region this season.

“My game’s in good shape,” he added. “I want to keep it that way for the next few weeks but I’ve got a lot of golf coming up and I don’t want to over-golf!

“As for my preparations for Hunstanton – I’ll arrive there with my wife and our dog on the Friday, relax for a couple of days, do some walking on the beach but not play any golf before the pro-am on Monday.”

Willey be up against 143 others in a field that, as well as Cort, includes seven members from the victorious 2017 Great Britain and Ireland PGA Cup team: Phillip Archer, Christopher Currie, David Higgins, Garry Houston, Greig Hutcheon, and Andrew Raitt.

Two, who have qualified for this year’s match via the PGA Play-Offs – Rob Coles and David Dixon – are not playing.