The fine line between delight and disaster at Augusta National has always been razor thin, just as defending champion Jordan Spieth learned the hardest way imaginable during a stomach-flipping Masters on Sunday that will be remembered for producing one of the most calamitous collapses in major-championship history.
Five shots ahead at the turn after a brilliant burst of four consecutive birdies to finish his front-nine 32, the 22-year-old Dallas native, in the space of less than 45 minutes, saw that lead disintegrate in a ruinous run over his next three holes. After bogeys at 10 and 11, the denouement came with a quadruple-bogey 7 at the signature 155-yard 12th hole when Spieth hit two shots into the pond in front of the green.
The beneficiary of all that uncharacteristic carnage was 28-year-old Danny Willett, an Englishman who plays mostly on the European Tour and is the new father of a baby boy born on March 30. He earned a three-shot victory over Spieth and countryman Lee Westwood as well as his first major championship and a winner’s check of $1.8 million. In only his second Masters appearance, Willett had a splendid bogey-free, 5-under-par 67 that matched the lowest 18-hole score posted on this sunny, cool afternoon. His 72-hole total was 5-under 283.
Big picture. This one will hurt. This one will take a while.
Jordan Spieth, who collapsed over a three-hole stretch
“It was a very surreal day,” said Willett, the first European to win here since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 and the first British player to wear a green jacket since Nick Faldo earned his third in 1996. “I can’t even describe the emotions and the feelings. … That’s one of the toughest par 3s in golf. It’s one of them unfortunate things that happened to Jordan.”
In the end, his own gritty performance after starting the day three behind at even-par resulted in a three-shot triumph over playing partner Westwood (69) and Spieth (73), both tied for second at 2-under 286. But anyone who witnessed this draining drama unfold in the shadows of the stately loblolly pines knows that this was a tournament Spieth had well in his grip, only to let it get away in the most shocking manner imaginable.
“It was a tough 30 minutes I hope I ever experience again,” Spieth told an interviewer from CBS a few minutes after he walked up to the 18th green to a standing ovation from thousands all around. Not long after signing his card, as the defending champion he dutifully went to Butler Cabin and, understandably grim-faced, placed the winner’s green jacket over Willett’s lime-green shirt.
“It was very tough given that it was because it was so soon after the finish,” Spieth said of the ceremony. “[Willett] handled it with extreme class, and I felt that I stood up there and smiled like I should. … I’m really happy for Danny. He’s had a lot of cool things happen in his life recently. … Big picture. This one will hurt. This one will take a while.”
Another English player, Paul Casey, came in with a 67 and finished at 1-under 287, tied for fourth with Americans Dustin Johnson (71) and J.B. Holmes (68). Only two back with two to play, Johnson made a double bogey at the 17th to ruin his own chances for a first major title. And Bernhard Langer, the PGA Tour Champions stalwart from Boca Raton and only two off the lead at the start of play, performed like a 58-year-old on a 7,500-yard course, posting a 79 and tying for 24th at 6-over 294.
Spieth’s sudden loss of form was reminiscent of a similar free-fall from grace by Greg Norman in 1996 when the Aussie took a six-shot lead into the final round, only to meltdown early and often and sign for 78. That allowed another Englishman to come from back in the pack on a day Faldo also shot 67 to win his third Masters. Norman also was done in by a splashdown shot in the water at No. 12, a fatal double bogey he never could overcome.
To his credit, Spieth was able to mount one more comeback. He birdied two of his next three holes to creep within two of Willett’s stunning new-found lead with three holes remaining. The Englishman was already in the clubhouse watching it all on TV. But when Spieth missed a six-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole trying to get within a shot, Willett could breathe a sigh of relief and began trying to call his wife, Nicole, back home in England.
Their child’s due date was April 10 but arrived 10 days early, allowing Willett to change what he’d said was an irrevocable decision not to play here if the baby had not been born before the tournament was set to begin. He was among the last men to join the field.
This was only Willett’s second Masters appearance, but he’s an experienced veteran ranked No. 12 in the world coming into the week. He’s already won this season in Dubai and made himself familiar to South Florida golf fans when he tied for third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral last month.
And now, he’s a Masters champion, with a lifetime exemption to play this storied tournament at a venomous venue he knows full well can go from delight to disaster in a heartbeat.
“This course can jump up and bite you any time,” he said. “You never feel comfortable until you finish.”
1. Danny Willett
T2. Jordan Spieth
T2. Lee Westwood
T4. Paul Casey
T4. J.B. Holmes
T4. Dustin Johnson