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.
“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.”
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.