Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn welcomed the return of the “Danny Willett of old” after witnessing the former Masters champion’s heartening revival at first hand in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
Willett reached a career-high of ninth in the world after claiming his first major title at Augusta National in 2016, but has slumped to 442nd in the rankings after suffering numerous injuries and a loss of form.
A missed cut in last week’s French Open was his ninth in 12 events this season, but the 30-year-old from Sheffield added a second round of 70 to his opening 68 at Ballyliffin to lie just two shots off the halfway lead shared by Ryan Fox, Matthieu Pavon and Erik van Rooyen in the £5.3million event.
Sweden’s Joakim Lagergren is a shot off the lead on seven under, with Willett joined on six under by compatriot Sam Horsfield and South African Zander Lombard.
Lee Westwood, who will be one of Bjorn’s vice-captains in Paris in September, is a shot further back on five under, while tournament host Rory McIlroy is seven off the pace after a disappointing 73.
“It’s been tough to see somebody that good struggle for that amount of time but today was the Danny Willett of old and it’s nice to see,” Bjorn, who carded a 71 to finish level par, told Press Association Sport.
“When you’re in that situation the Ryder Cup and all those things are so far from your mind, you’re working on a project that goes from day to day. Having two days like this is important, now comes the hard part of going the next two and enjoying it because you’ve done all the hard work to get back to here.”
Willett is relieved to finally be injury free after back and shoulder problems, while he also struggled with a torn meniscus in his knee during the Italian Open, where he finished eighth, which almost forced him to withdraw from the US Open.
And although a late tee time on Saturday will mean missing England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden, that might not be a bad thing given that at least one member of his family will be supporting the opposition.
“We’ll have to get the television crew to keep us updated, but my mum is Swedish so she’ll be cheering for them,” Willett joked.
“It’s nice to come out and hit the shots that you can see in practise and actually perform still under pressure when the clubs are in your hand and you’re trying to obviously improve what you’re doing. It’s been a tough 18 months but I’m very happy to be playing nicely.”
Westwood admitted missing the England game was a “nice problem to have” after withdrawing from the French Open with a shoulder problem during the second round at Le Golf National, venue for September’s Ryder Cup.
“You can’t take any teams lightly these days,” Westwood said of England’s chances of reaching the semi-finals. “We saw that in the last tournament against Iceland but they are as good players as any, they believe in their coach and their system and should stick to it if they can.”
Defending champion Jon Rahm followed an opening 74 with a 69 to safely make the cut on one under par, but home favourite Padraig Harrington, who was a shot off the lead after a first round of 68, crashed out after taking 10 shots more on Friday.
The three-time major winner recovered from a double bogey on the 13th, caused by a lost ball off the tee, with birdies on the 16th and 17th, only to also double-bogey the last in a back nine of 40.