His instant reaction said it all really, even before the first post-round question was asked.

“It’s unexpected, isn’t it?” said a grinning Danny Willett of his opening 68 in what is his 10th Masters appearance. Seven birdies and a four-under-par beginning wasn’t what was causing the Englishman’s obvious glee, of course. No. That was down to the fact that this was the 2016 Masters champion’s first competitive round of golf since he finished a lowly T-64 in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last September.

One day after a closing 76 in the DP World Tour’s flagship event saw Willett pull up 18 shots behind the new champion, Ryan Fox, he was talking to a surgeon about his aching left shoulder. A recent MRI had revealed the suspected tear had doubled in size, so an operation and an enforced absence from the game were going to be necessary. “The tendon jumps over because the joint isn’t sitting in properly,” was Willett’s initial explanation back then. “As soon as that happens, it feels almost like a dislocation.”

As it turned out, the tear Willett could feel was one of two, a problem exacerbated by damage around the cartilage and a few cysts that had to be “cleared out.” That is not to say the immediate aftermath was any less concerning. “It was a pretty intrusive surgery, and it was a bit scary when I first came out and I could barely lift my own hand,” said Willett, who was told his recovery time would be 12 to 18 months.

By that measure, he is well ahead of schedule, a fact he first realized only three months ago. By then, eight weeks of not being able to lift anything were behind him, as was the six weeks he spent wearing a 90-degree cast on his left arm, one he could remove only when showering. Throw in four months of an extensive daily rehab routine that included ice baths, saunas, gym work—in addition to spending time visiting and working with a variety of specialists—and it is clear Willett has been working hard.

“In January, we had a bit of a meeting,” he explains. “I’d been to London to see the specialist, and it was getting to where I could do all right, somewhat swing a club properly and the strength was there. I knew then I wasn’t going to re-injure myself, so I really pressed on. It’s been a really, really intense few months.”

Still, Willett’s final decision to play in the event that is clearly the biggest win of his career was made only as recently as Sunday, when he was able to play a full 18 holes. A round-and-a-half followed on Monday and when he woke up on Tuesday feeling no pain, the former Walker Cup and Ryder Cup player knew he was going to make it to the first tee two days later. Which, again, is not to say he is fully recovered. The plan post-Masters is to take another seven weeks off. Before that though, his expectations remain realistic.

Willett didn’t know for sure he’d play this week until a practice round on Sunday. And he intends to take seven more weeks off to make sure his shoulder is fully healed – Andrew Redington

“I haven’t been under the gun since Wentworth,” he said. “But it’s nice to come and prove that if you’ve done the work and you do the right things that you can hit the shots still when you need to do so. Everything is just a building block. This was a completely neutral week for me. Whether I played or not I was still going to come here and enjoy being here. I might go out tomorrow and shoot 80, I don’t know. But it’s just the fact that I’m here and pain free. It’s just a nice way to be.”

Indeed, while those seven birdies—three in the last four holes—were surely the nicest aspects of his return to action, Willett was encouraged by the transformation of what first appeared to be a bad draw into one that might bring an advantage over those playing later. And not having to play 27 holes Friday was definitely further brightening his mood.

“For a moment it looked like we were going to get a bit of a rubbishy side, but luckily it was actually thundering this morning, so no one could actually play in the bad weather,” he said with a smile. “We knew the wind was always going to be up this afternoon, so everyone is going to have to play in it for at least a little bit. By the same token, because the greens are soft they’re going to obviously spike up a little bit even though they’re still fast, still tricky.”

Nothing is for sure though. Quite apart from his ongoing physical struggles, Willett’s Masters record since his victory eight years ago is far from distinguished. In the now 19 rounds he has played over the last eight years, 15 have been over-par and only four have added up to less than 72. No matter. You get the feeling that, whatever happens over the next three days, he will leave Augusta National with a smile on his face.

Main Image: Maddie Meyer