Englishman Danny Willett played bogey free golf on Sunday to shoot 67 and win his first Masters.
Hmmm, sounds like a nice story. What else happened?
Glad you asked!
Well, to start with, the wrong guy won. But we’ll get to that in a minute. There were some other storylines worth noting.
The wind was a significant factor for the first three days, making club selection difficult and drying out the usually tricky Augusta greens so they were rolling at warp speed. Usually greens are measured with a Stimpmeter but once they roll faster than 13, numbers are insufficient and they’re described as linoleum, greased lightening or warp speed. Augusta greens are typically quick but the speed this year made everybody play exceedingly defensively, which doesn’t translate into exciting golf. Average scoring on Thursday was 75 and a stroke higher on Friday. It reminded me of the year Zach Johnson won. BORING!
Another headline could have been, “Where did the big guns go?” This Masters was supposed to be a showdown between former Masters winners Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, who had both won on Tour this year; Jason Day, the number 1 ranked player in the world and winner of his last two tournaments; defending champion Jordan Spieth; and maybe Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose or Phil Mickelson. Maybe even Rickie Fowler, the great orange hope, looking for his first major.
Fowler got squeezed on Thursday, proving once again he’s not ready for prime time when it comes to majors. Watson also blew up although he made the cut on Friday, right on the number. Scott was a couple ahead of Watson. The rest of them were bunched a few back of the lead except for McIlroy who was just one off the pace and would be paired in the last group with Spieth on Saturday. Finally, the real Masters story was about to be written. The big showdown was on!
Except it fizzled from the get-go. McIlroy went south and at days end was five back. It should have been a wider margin except for Jordan’s bogey, double bogey finish. Maybe that should have been the story – a sign of things to come. In his post round press conference, Spieth talked about not having his A game. But he was leading after three rounds with less than his best, so perhaps it was good enough.
The other big guns failed to make any ground on Saturday too, although they were hovering a few strokes off the pace, maybe ready to make a Sunday charge when the wind was expected to die down.
By the end of the day on Saturday, the only story anyone was talking about was whether Spieth could maintain his Masters lead for eight consecutive rounds. He already had the record, seven rounds, dating back to his wire-to-wire finish in 2015. Who was going to stop him? Playing partner Smylie Kaufmann? He was a shot back, playing in his first Masters and more likely to wet himself than put any pressure on the defending champion.
Two shots back were 57-year old Bernhard Langer and Hideki Matsuyama. Langer had won his second Masters a few months before Spieth was born and always plays well at Augusta. But Langer was in the position he was primarily because of the weather. He’s very steady and rarely makes a mistake but he wouldn’t be expected to go low on Sunday. Matsuyama has a nice game built around excellent ball striking but his putting can be suspect.
Then came perennial also ran Lee Westwood, always a good bet to make a run at the lead but ultimately falter down the stretch; and another Englishman named Danny Willett, who wasn’t even supposed to play but got in at the last minute when his wife delivered their first child ten days ahead of schedule. Willett was an up-and-comer, ranked 12th in the world and he did hover around the leaderboard last year at St. Andrews. But no Englishman had won the Masters in twenty years.
They were followed by a phalanx of favourites, contenders and pretenders. Surely someone could put together a charge on Sunday to make things interesting.
As everybody knows by now, nobody put together a charge. Jordan Spieth carried a five shot lead to the tenth tee on Sunday and looked like a lock to win his second consecutive green jacket. After all, this is the 22-year old who putts like Billy Casper, has Seve’s magnificent short game, the steely nerves of Ben Hogan, the charisma of Arnold Palmer and the resolve of Jack Nicklaus. And he already knew how to win majors.
Cue the spooky music. Somebody once said the Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday.
Well, something definitely happened to Jordan at the turn. Mild seizure, alien abduction – nobody’s sure. What followed was epic. Weak drive on 10 that left an approach of 202 yards. The second shot found the right hand green side bunker; his sand shot was so-so and two putts later, Spieth, or the alien controlling him, had a bogey.
Spieth had been fighting a case of the rights all week and his drive on 11 was more of the same, finding a spot in the pine straw behind a tree. After chipping back to the fairway, he launched a bold approach over the water, directly at the pin, where it spun back to about ten feet. OK! But he missed the putt. Another bogey.
Standing on the 12th tee, Jordan still had the lead by two but that’s when we knew for sure it was aliens. Spieth, in his remarkable short career, has shown himself to be one of the best decision makers on the golf course. He weighs risks, looks at his options and plays percentage shots. He never does anything stupid. A little draw to the middle of the green was the obvious shot.
Spieth dug deep and somehow discovered his inner Jean Van de Velde. Maybe he went so deep that he found some Tom Weiskopf fairy dust too. Contrary to all of the collected wisdom of the ages, Spieth missed his target line and hit a weak push that hit the bank. There would be no Freddy Couples magic this Sunday. His tee shot rolled into Rae’s Creek. (For historical perspective, Weiskopf rinsed five shots on the 12th hole in 1980, making a 13 on the hole).
The alien controlling Spieth’s mind is obviously a weekend hacker with scant knowledge of Amen Corner. For some still unexplained reason, Spieth then opted to take his drop in the fairway, leaving himself an awkward yardage to the pin. We’ve all laid the sod over the ball at one time or another but Jordan dug a pelt that the greens staff could have rolled and sold to a local nursery. Three in, four out.
For his fifth shot Spieth dropped in the same spot, once again dismissing the option of the drop zone, which was a more comfortable yardage. At least this time he cleared Rae’s Creek but ended in the back bunker. Perhaps the walk across the Nelson Bridge helped him regain his senses. Normally, players traverse the water on the Hogan Bridge but Spieth was so far right, it was shorter to use the bridge on the 13th hole.
After a tidy up and down from the bunker, the tally was seven. A quadruple bogey! And now he trailed Danny Willett by three. The rest is history. The aliens departed, the real Jordan Spieth showed up for the rest of the round but try as he might, he was just too far back to catch Willett.
The whole episode was a bit surreal. Heroes are supposed to win majors. Maybe we got used to that watching Tiger Woods for so many years. For 14 major victories he never coughed up a lead. The hero always won, the chaser always lost. Ask Bob May or Chris DiMarco.
When it doesn’t happen and you witness the kind of carnage that befell Jordan Spieth, you’re left with a very strange feeling. I felt that way for hours after the green jacket was presented. Kind of like I’ve eaten some bad shrimp, which was not enough to make me sick but definitely left me feeling a little queasy. Not the finish anybody expected. Not the way you want it to happen. But good for Danny Willett; tough on Jordan Spieth.
Was this the worst collapse at Augusta? The worst in a major?
Not even close.
In 2011, Rory McIlroy started the final nine with a four shot lead, hooked his drive on 10 so badly that he ended up on a part of the golf course nobody knew existed. A triple bogey, bogey, double bogey start to the back nine lead to 80 and that was it for the Northern Irishman. There would be no green jacket that year. That was a pretty bad collapse. But McIlroy recovered by winning the very next major – the U.S. Open at Congressional
In 1979, Ed Sneed began the final round with a five shot lead, and came to No 16 still hanging on to a three stroke cushion. But bogies on the final three holes dropped Sneed into a playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller, which he lost. Sneed was rarely heard from again.
Most golf fans would argue that the worst collapse at a Masters happened 20 years ago when Greg Norman had a six shot lead at the start of play on Sunday. Playing with the excruciatingly steady Nick Faldo, Norman could have, should have, won this in his sleep.
I was so convinced that Norman was going to win that for the first and only time in the last 50 years, I elected to miss the telecast so I could attend our season ending Men’s League beer bash and hockey banquet. Being a huge Norman fan, I taped the golf telecast for posterity but after I found out that Greg shot 78 to Nick’s 67 – an 11-shot swing, I never had the stomach to watch it. And still never have.
So which is worse? The one hole blunder or a prolonged hack attack?
Adam Scott lost an Open Championship, up four with four to play. Four bogies later, Scott was watching Ernie Els hoist the Claret Jug. Scott recovered to win the 2013 Masters.
In 1966, Arnold Palmer held a 7-shot lead over Billy Casper going to the back nine at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado. The King lost. He never won another major.
In my mind, the worst collapse in the history of golf has to be Jean Van de Velde’s play on the 72nd hole at the Open Championship in 1999 at Carnoustie. It not only featured poor shotmaking, it featured some of the worst decision-making under pressure you’re ever likely to see. Van de Velde’s triple bogey on the final hole put him into a playoff, which he lost. Some people can recall who won that Championship (Paul Lawrie) but nobody can forget who lost it.
Van de Velde was never a factor in a major again.
How would it be for Jordan Spieth?
He took his loss hard and looked like he’d been punched in the gut during the post round ceremonies. Will he recover from this? I think so. He’s young, mentally strong and exceedingly talented. He’s won majors before and lost a couple of close ones too. It wouldn’t surprise me if he follows McIlroy’s example and wins the U.S. Open at Oakmont in June.
And what about the man who wasn’t supposed to win?
For Danny Willett, his caddy Jonathan Smart, agent Chubby Chandler, Mrs. Willett and a few assorted Willetts, this was off-the-wall crazy. The Willetts just had their first baby at the end of March and now a Masters title. Life is going to be much different for that family.
And what about the future? Is he a one hit wonder like Rich Beem or Shaun Micheel? Or something more? He showed he can perform under pressure and be ready when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to win majors. I think we’ll see a lot more of Mr. Willett and ultimately that means maybe the right guy won at Augusta after all.
It turned out to be quite a story.