Shades of '96: Ecstasy and agony collide at Augusta


AUGUSTA, Ga. – The guy that said he’d skip the Masters to attend the birth of his first child now has the luxury of never having to miss one.

Zachariah James Willett turned 13 days old on Sunday, the son of Danny and Nicole arriving in time for the pater familias to play the Masters. But with respect to young Zachariah it was another anniversary that the Englishman was mulling just past sunset at Augusta National.

Twenty years ago this week, Greg Norman endured what is widely considered the most shocking collapse in major championship history, losing a six-stroke 54-hole lead with a ghastly Sunday 78.

It was only fitting that the last time the iconic pines were witness to such a collapse it was also an Englishman who emerged to fill the void.

In 1996, Norman went out in 2 over and finally disintegrated when he played Nos. 10-12 in bogey, bogey, double bogey to lose to Nick Faldo.

Given what transpired on that same stretch of turf on Sunday, even the Shark must have cringed watching Jordan Spieth’s implosion.

Spieth missed his approach in the right bunker at the 10th for his second bogey of the day and added his third at the 11th when his drive sailed into the trees right of the fairway. Next, he nearly deposited a sleeve of golf balls into Rae’s Creek at the 12th on his way to a quadruple-bogey 7 at No. 12 to drop from five strokes clear of the field, at the turn, to trailing by three.

Things can change just that quick in an Augusta minute.

“We’re all in shock with what happened to Jordan,” said Faldo, who called Sunday’s action for CBS Sports and is the only other Englishman to win the Masters. “In ’96, you got the sense that Greg was struggling but it was bit by bit.

“What happened to Jordan it was so sudden, just bam. It was 10 minutes of golf. That’s the harshness of it.”

Although that glosses over the fine details of Sunday’s action, it essentially sums up the 80th Masters.

It ignores timely birdie putts converted by Willett at Nos. 13, 14 and 16; a clutch up-and-down from left of the 17th green for par and the flawless drive he roped down the last to finish off a final-round 67 – the same score shot by Faldo in ’96.

And, much like Faldo two decades earlier, it ignores an otherwise brilliant performance by a player few outside of Rotherham, England thought possible until the last hour of action.

Unlike Faldo, Willett wasn’t paired with Spieth on Sunday, but that’s not to say he was unaware of the upheaval three groups behind him.

As the 28-year-old, who was five strokes back with seven holes to play, was walking off the 15th green he heard the first telltale signs of trouble.

“I actually heard everyone groaning and moaning. [Spieth] obviously had a terrible run, 10, 11, 12, which basically put it right back in anyone's hands,” Willett said. “I was waiting for someone to, as a little joke, to put a 7 [under] back up [on the leaderboard]. It was one of those things that hole will do it. It's one of the toughest par 3s in golf.”

For Spieth, this Masters will be remembered as an opportunity lost.

After an opening 66 put him on a collision course with his second trip to Butler Cabin, he struggled through two days of brutal conditions with his first over-par rounds (74-73) in his Masters career, and yet he still found himself in a familiar position.

Spieth finished Day 3 atop the leaderboard – for the eighth time in 11 rounds at Augusta National – and appeared to be destined to become the first player to win back-to-back majors in wire-to-wire fashion when he played the front nine in 4 under par.

With nine holes to play, Spieth’s Masters career appeared to be the stuff of legend – runner-up, victory and another looming victory – and the only option for officials to “Jordan-proof” Augusta National would be to remove the putting portion of the competition.

But that Teflon short game which had saved him all week slowly slipped away. Spieth missed an 8-footer for par at the 11th hole and failed to limit the damage after sending his fifth shot into a bunker at No. 12.

“At one point I told Mike [Greller, his caddie], I said, ‘Buddy, it seems like we're collapsing,’” said Spieth, who finished with a 73 to tie for second place with Lee Westwood, three strokes behind Willett. “I wanted to be brutally honest with the way I felt towards him, so that he could respond with what was necessary to get us to rebound.”

Spieth attempted to rebound with birdies at Nos. 13 and 15, and he had 13 feet for birdie at the 16th hole to cut Willett’s lead to one, but missed.

It’s true, he missed.

A young career defined by clutch putting has now been dealt its first dose of adversity, and in the emotional moments after his round Spieth sensed as much.

“This one will hurt,” Spieth said as his eyes welled up with tears. “It’s going to take a while.”

Spieth wasn’t the only one stinging on Sunday.

Per the traditional order of things, the second nine proved to be the pivotal give and take of this Masters – unfortunately by the time many of the would-be winners rounded the turn their chances had already faded.

Dustin Johnson four-putted the fifth hole for a double-bogey 6 to drop six strokes back, and Jason Day bogeyed the same hole and turned at even par on his way to a closing 73.

The same could be said for Rory McIlroy, whose bid to complete the career Grand Slam will have to wait another calendar after the Northern Irishman posted six bogeys and tied for 10th place.

Spieth, however, will endure the most scar tissue from this Masters.

The world No. 2 played the first nine under par each day, but was 9 over par the final three days over the closing loop. On Saturday, when he closed bogey, double bogey, he appeared stunned. After closing with a 41 on Sunday he appeared shell shocked.

“I had my B‑minus game tee to green, and I made up for it around the greens with my putter,” Spieth conceded. “Ultimately, you just have to have your A game every single shot, and I just didn't have those iron swings, as it showed on the back nine.”

Much like Faldo in ’96, Willett will have a vastly different memory of Sunday’s closing hours. That’s the thing with collapses: they always come with an equal amount of celebration for someone else.

In 13 days Willett’s life has vastly changed, first with the early arrival of Zachariah, whose original due date was Sunday, and now a lifetime date with Augusta National.

“I'm not quite sure which is better, this day or last Tuesday,” Willett said. “They are very, very, very close. I don't know which one I should say to be politically correct.”

Much like his decision to not play the Masters if his son wasn’t born in time, he no longer has to make that choice.