Fate shines on the new father
Willett wins the Masters as Spieth’s swing unravels
April 10, 2016
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Danny Willett finished the week at 5 under to claim the Green Jacket in dramatic fashion over Jordan Spieth. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – At some point in his Masters career -- maybe even 12 months from now -- Danny Willett will step off the 18th green after his final round, hug his wife Nicole, cradle son Zachariah in his arms, and stroll to the scoring area. Perhaps he’ll be celebrating a victory along the way.
We’ve seen the scene many times at Augusta National, this lovely intersection of family man and championship golfer at the end of a long and challenging round. But on Sunday, the greatest day of Willett’s professional life, his wife and son were 4,000 miles away, back home in England.
Were it not for life’s good fortune, Willett would have been there too.
Nicole delivered the Willetts’ first child 12 days ago. Her original due date was April 10 – the final round of the Masters. It also happens to be Nicole’s birthday; she was born the same day Sandy Lyle won the 1988 Masters. Danny already made the decision to stay at home and miss the year’s first major.
Instead, Nicole underwent a C-section and Zachariah was delivered early, allowing Willett to change his plans. “The little man was due today,” Willett said. “Obviously he listened to his dad.”
While others arrived early to prep for Augusta National, Willett stayed at home, taking care of his family and forgoing crucial practice time. He was the last of 89 players to arrive at Augusta National, which explains why his caddie wore No. 89 on his jumpsuit.
Thirty years earlier, Jackie Nicklaus wore No. 89 while caddying for his dad during the most memorable Masters Sunday in history. Fate intervened that day ... and fate didn’t stop intervening for Willett until Sunday night inside Butler Cabin, when he slipped on the Green Jacket as the improbable 2016 Masters champ.
"The most ridiculously awesome 12 days," Willett said. "... Incredibly surreal."
And incredibly dramatic. A few hours earlier, just past 5 p.m., Jordan Spieth – fresh off four consecutive birdies -- led by five strokes at the turn. “A dream come true front nine,” he called it. His reign as Masters champ would continue. You say the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine Sunday? Here was the rare instance of it being finished. Time to order more Texas BBQ for next year’s Champions dinner.
But then a weird thing happened. Jordan Spieth became human. More to the point, his swing became human.
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We should’ve seen it coming. Despite his opening 66, despite leading after each of the first three rounds, Spieth didn’t appear happy with his game. His position on the leaderboard and his short-game ability masked his tee-to-green errors, especially in the middle two rounds. His swing coach, Cameron McCormick, even noticed, so he hustled back to Augusta after having returned home to Dallas earlier in the week.
It speaks volumes about Spieth’s game that he can seemingly dominate while secretly struggling. But as he found out on the back nine Sunday at Augusta National, there is nowhere to hide.
He could tell things were going south. At one point, Spieth turned to his caddie Michael Greller. "Buddy, it seems like we're collapsing," Spieth told him.
“I had my B-minus game tee-to-green and I made up for it around the greens with my putter,” Spieth explained later. “Ultimately you just have to have your ‘A’ game every single part. I just didn’t have those iron swings, as it showed on the back nine.”
The collapse was sudden and shocking, more Rory McIlroy 2011 than Greg Norman 1996.
He found the greenside bunker at 10 and couldn’t save par. He found the pine straw at 11, had to chip out, and couldn’t save par. At the par-3 12th, his tee shot came up short, hit the bank and dribbled into the water. What came next was even more jaw-dropping – his shot from the drop area also found the water.
Quadruple bogey. The roars that usually echo through the Georgia pines here Sunday were replaced by groans and gasps. Spieth was in shock. So were the patrons. It was 5:50 p.m. Danny Willett, the Englishman with the 12-day-old son, was now leading the Masters.
"I actually heard everyone grunting and moaning or whatever they do to the scoreboard when the scores go up," Willett said. "He obviously had a terrible run, 10, 11, 12, which basically put it right back in anyone's hands. And fortunately enough, I was able to seize the opportunities."
He wasn't the only one. Lee Westwood had just chipped in for eagle at the par-5 15th. That put him at 3 under. Forty-five minutes earlier, Westwood was trailing Spieth by seven shots; now he was trailing his playing partner by one.
“There’s a fine line between disaster and success,” Westwood said. “Major championship golf throws up some shocks.”
With the tables turned, now it was Willett’s turn to protect the Masters lead down the stretch. Many a golfer has crumbled under this insane kind of pressure, and Willett – despite being ranked 12th in the world – has never been in this position at a major.
Remember, just the week before, he was home changing diapers and taking care of his family, not even picking up a club. And like everybody else this week, he had spent the first 66 holes in Spieth's shadow.The little man was due today. Obviously he listened to his dad.
But in his rise up the rankings, he’s developed a reputation as a player who can handle the heat. A player who can focus on the task at hand, rely on his instincts, trust the process that got him to this point. "We've been good mental this week," noted Willett. On Sunday, Augusta National also supplied a few favors, giving him shots that were perfect for his yardages.
“This golf course is tough enough if you’re trying to hit shots in-between to firm greens,” Willett said. “But luckily we dropped in some good numbers down the stretch, which allowed us to be really aggressive.”
No number was better than 175, the yardage to the pin at the par-3 16th. Pulling an 8-iron, Willett found the proper spot on the green and rolled his ball to 7 feet. Birdie. Meanwhile, Westwood three-putted. Suddenly, Willett’s lead was three shots over his friend and countryman.
Two pars later, Willett was inside the clubhouse, having signed for a bogey-free 67, an extraordinary performance that shouldn’t be lost in the Spieth meltdown. Willett then had to wait out the 22-year-old, see if there was a miracle bounce-back forthcoming. Spieth tried – he birdied both par-5s coming in – but that wasn’t enough. The self-inflicted damage had been done.
During the awkward Butler Cabin ceremony, it was Spieth, as defending champ, tasked with slipping the jacket on Willett. The Texan stumbled slightly as he maneuvered behind Willett, luckily catching himself on a chair. “Almost fell there,” Masters chairman Billy Payne said. Actually, Spieth’s fall had already taken place.
There will be scar tissue for Spieth. Maybe that will be a positive in the long run. It’s a harsh lesson to be learned, but he’ll have many other chances to regain the green jacket. Sunday was just not his time.
"As you can imagine, I can't think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience," Spieth said about his post-tournament commitments. "Obviously, happy for Danny. More important than golf, he’s had a lot of really cool things happen in his life.
"Like he said, maybe fate had it this time for him.”
Fate didn’t put Danny Willett’s family at the 18th green on Sunday. So he did the next best thing. He spoke to Nicole on Facetime, and when he hung up, a photo of Zachariah appeared on his smartphone. Their digital images are all he has until he returns home. He won’t need to explain why he’s carrying an extra garment bag.