AUGUSTA, GA—It’s been said many times the Masters doesn’t really get started till the final 9 holes. For 22-year-old Jordan Spieth, the final nine holes he played in the 2016 Masters will be etched into his memory for a lifetime. The defending champion had birdied the final four holes of the front nine and was cruising with a lead of several shots. Given the reality that the Texan had led the field each day for the last seven rounds at Augusta National Golf Club—a tournament record—there seemed little reason to think anything less than another Masters green jacket was likely.
The unthinkable happened—and one man seized the moment.
Ahead of Spieth was 28-year-old Englishman Danny Willett. Playing a bogey-free round Willett fired a five-under-par 67, tied for the day’s low round with two other Englishmen—Paul Casey and Matthew Fitzpatrick. Willett admitted afterwards that he believed a 66 in the final round would be good enough to have an impact, nonetheless his four-round total of 283—the highest winning score at The Masters in the last nine years—provided a three-shot edge over Spieth and fellow Englishman Lee Westwood who tied for second.
Even with Willett’s fine play it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for Spieth to collapse and allow another competitor to reap the bounty.
Spieth bogied the par-4 10th and par-4 11th holes but his lead was still a solid two shots after Willett had birdied the par-5 13th. Standing on the famed par-3 12th—a hole long known for its epic impacts on past Masters—Spieth needed to make a solid shot to avoid the fronting water. Inexplicably, Spieth hit a weak iron shot pushed to the right and never came anywhere near the green. The ball found a watery grave.
Complicating matters, instead of using the drop-area provided for his 3rd shot, Spieth admitted afterwards in making a mental error and deciding to play from an area which extended back to the 13th fairway. The shot was just over 70 yards and Spieth simply hit behind the ball badly and it too disappeared into Rae’s Creek. Eventually Spieth did cross the water hazard and found a rear bunker which he escaped and then a one-putted for a quadruple-bogey seven.
What had been a likely coronation for Spieth had completely turned into a nightmare of epic proportions.
Willett, to his credit, birdied the par-4 14th and stiffed an approach at the accessible par-3 16th to forge on to -5 for the championship. The Englishman finished strongly with two solid pars and while Spieth attempted to make an improbable comeback with birdies at the 13th and 15th holes to draw to within two shots, he failed to convert a 8-foot putt for birdie at the 16th and when he bogied the par-4 17th the likely scenario of him becoming just the fourth golfer to win back-to-back titles ended.
Amazingly, Willett did not even think a visit to this year’s event was likely as his wife was pregnant with their expected first child. The original planned due date was April 10—the date of the final round. Fortunately, the birth came sooner than expected on March 30 with son Zachariah and Willett made the decision to enter the event. He arrived Monday evening of tournament week and prepared himself for just his second appearance in The Masters. To add to the moment, Willett’s wife Nicole celebrated her 28th birthday in the early hours of her birthday on April 11 in England.
While Willett may not be a household golf name here in America his play in Europe has been strong, finishing second to Rory McIlroy in last year’s Race to Dubai and in winning earlier this year at The Omega Dubai Desert Classic. The win also marked the first European to win the famed green jacket since Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain won his second Masters in 1999, and Willett now joins three-time winner Nick Faldo as the 2nd Englishman to have won at Augusta.
To add to the pain of the day, it was Spieth as defending champion who had to place the green jacket on the new Masters champion Willett. In recounting his time during that part of the round Spieth was totally candid, “It was a tough 30 minutes for me that I hopefully never experience again.”
The impact that Spieth has had in golf—given just being 22 years old—has been nothing short of amazing and on par with the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods when they came on the scene in professional golf. In three visits to Augusta Spieth has now finished as runner-up twice to go along with his record tying four round total of 270 last year. If he had been able to win his second Masters he would have accomplished the feat in having led a major for eight consecutive rounds—a feat never done in 156 years of championship golf.
Willett started the final round three shots behind and tied with the likes of world number one Jason Day and perennial major contender Dustin Johnson. Many had expected either Day or Johnson to make a move but neither was able to do so. Day was unable to get untracked and Johnson, while playing superbly was victimized by a faulty putter—four-putting the par-4 5th for double-bogey and missing makeable eagle putts on both the 13th and 15th holes.
Unlike the earlier three rounds which featured a relentless chilly northwest wind that hampered scoring, the final day was relatively calm and players made the most of it. Three hole-in-ones were made at the par-3 16th—the first by Irishman Shane Lowry, followed by Davis Love III, and then the final one by South African Louis Oosthuizen whose ball caromed off competitor J.B. Holmes ball and still found the bottom of the cup.
Where the field scoring average topped 76 on Saturday’s blustery 3rd round, the course yielded 21 sub par rounds during Sunday’s concluding 18-holes—more than double from the 2nd and 3rd rounds combined.
Willett now moves up to 9th in the world rankings and along with fellow countryman Justin Rose are the likely participants for England in the forthcoming golf event at this year’s Olympic Summer Games in Rio Janeiro.
The next major event is the U.S. Open at Oakmont, just outside of Pittsburgh in roughly eight weeks. Spieth will need to re-examine what transpired but he can take solace that a similar collapse happened to the talented Rory McIlroy who led the 2011 Masters before a similar breakdown. McIlroy showed tremendous grit in overcoming that failure in winning the next major—the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional—in record fashion. Spieth can only hope that situation can repeat to his benefit.
For Willett, the win caps an amazing two weeks both personally and professionally. Once again the back nine at Augusta National created golf theater even Hollywood could not have envisioned.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.