Willett's life changes - again - with Masters win

By John FeinsteinApril 11, 2016, 1:03 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Sunday was supposed to be a special day in Danny Willett’s life. If all had gone as initially scheduled, his first child would have been born. And, if that had been the case, Willett would have been in Sheffield, England with his wife Nicole when Zachariah James – their first child – arrived.

But Zachariah made his first public appearance on March 30 after a C-section and, after talking it over with Nicole, Danny decided to come and play in his second Masters.

Now, he’ll be coming back forever.

On the day when he thought he would become a father, Willett became a Masters champion. Playing three groups in front of the week-long leader, Jordan Spieth, he shot a solid, bogey-free 67. And, like everyone else, Willett was stunned when Spieth completely collapsed going through Amen Corner, playing the 10th, 11th and 12th holes in bogey, bogey, quadruple bogey.

Spieth had birdied the last four holes on the first nine to go out in 32 and had a five-shot lead as he made the turn. It seemed almost inevitable that the second nine holes would be a coronation march to Spieth’s second straight Masters title.

But, as Greg Norman often said, there’s a reason why golf is a four-letter word.

Until Sunday, the most memorable collapse in Masters history was Norman’s loss to Nick Faldo from six shots ahead in the final round 20 years ago. On that day, Faldo shot a bogey-free 67 (to Norman’s 78) and made the comment that he hoped people would remember that he played well, not just that Norman played poorly.

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“I hope they’ll remember that I came through with a very good day,” Faldo said that day. ”But I suppose they’ll talk more about Greg when all is said and done.”

They did. And they have. But that doesn’t change the fact that Faldo did play superbly that day. The same is true of Willett, whose performance was all the more remarkable given his lack of experience in major championships. Faldo’s win in 1996 was his third at the Masters and his sixth major title, in all.

Willett was playing in his 12th major and had one top-10 finish – last year’s Open Championship where he tied for sixth – on his resume. For most of the day, it looked as if he would add a second solid finish and perhaps his first top-five to that record. But a win?

“I thought we had to get to 6 under or 7 under,” Willett said. “Then I looked up and Jordan was already at 7 under. After that it became a little bit surreal.”

To put it mildly. Willett began the day in a tie for fifth place, three shots back of Spieth. Willett was on the 12th hole, having birdied the sixth and the eighth when Spieth rolled in a long birdie putt at the ninth. Willett was in second place, but still – as he noted – trailed Spieth by five shots.

And then, while Willett was birdieing Nos. 13 and 14, Spieth was suffering one of the most stunning and inexplicable collapses in golf history – most notably at the 12th, where he mis-hit his tee shot, chunked his wedge even more dramatically and then bounced his fifth shot into the back bunker. From there, he made a very good up-and-down for 7.

Suddenly, as he walked off the 15th green, Willett was leading the Masters – by one shot over the man he was paired with, Lee Westwood.

“I heard the groaning or oohing or whatever the sound was,” Willett said. “I looked behind me and saw what had happened.” He smiled. “For a second I thought it was a joke and they were going to change it and put a 7 back up there.”

They didn’t.

If there was ever a moment for nerves to hit WIllett, it was as he stood on the 16th tee. He never blinked, hitting an 8-iron to within 8 feet and holing the putt for birdie. When Westwood three-putted from 50-feet, Willett had gone from trailing the leader by five to leading by three in less than an hour.

Athletes in any sport will tell you that the most difficult thing to do when you are close to a dream is to stay in the present – in this case to not think about putting on a green jacket. Taking his time, taking deep breaths before every shot, Willett got up-and-down from just off the 17th green for par and then hit two sterling shots on 18 to set up a two-putt par. When his final putt went in, he hugged his caddie, Jonathan Smart, as if he had just won the Masters.

Spieth still had a chance, having somehow calmed his shattered nerves long enough to birdie Nos. 13 and 15. But when he missed a curling 8-foot birdie putt at 16, then missed the green at 17 and made bogey, it was over.

“Words can’t really describe it,” Willett said, wearing the green jacket that will be part of his life forever. “I’ve won a few times in the past, but this is a different league. It will take a while for it to sink in.”

While he waited for Spieth to finish, Willett called Nicole. “The line was a bit crackly,” he said. “I think she said, ‘well done.’”

That’s putting it mildly. Willett was a late bloomer as a junior golfer in England and had accepted a scholarship offer from Jacksonville State (Alabama) before he began to win more tournaments and drew more attention. He kept his commitment to coach James Hobbs and spent two years there before turning pro.

His career has been on the rise for the past several years and included a third-place finish in the WGC-Dell Match Play a year ago and the sixth-place finish at St. Andrews last summer. He decided to pass on joining the PGA Tour this year because of the impending arrival of his son.

“I guess he heard my prayers and knew he had to come early,” Willett said. “I’m not sure what’s been more thrilling today or last Tuesday. I’m not sure which one it’s politically correct to say.”

Informed that it was the birth of his son, Willett, the son of a preacher, smiled. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “It really was amazing.”

So was Sunday. Spieth’s pain was Willett’s joy; Spieth’s near-miss changed Willett’s life – at the age of 28 – in ways he could not begin to imagine, certainly not yet.

On the 18th green, just before he tapped in his final putt, Willett took off the white sweater he’d been wearing all day to reveal the green shirt he was wearing.

“I was warm, really,” Willett said. Then he smiled again. “And I thought the green looked a little better.”

He now has the green every golfer dreams about owning. Because he stayed home until the last possible minute, Willett didn’t arrive in Augusta until Monday evening. Since he was the 89th – and last – player to register, Smart wore No. 89 on his white caddie jumpsuit.

He won’t be wearing that number next year. Every player at the Masters receives his number based on when he registers. Except the previous year’s champion.

He gets No. 1.

Regardless of when he arrives a year from now, that will be Willett’s number. And while people will remember Spieth’s collapse, there is no doubt that Willett earned his victory.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.