On the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest collapses in tournament history, Danny Willett tied for the day’s low round and took advantage of defending champion Jordan Spieth’s back-nine blunders to win the 80th Masters Tournament.
Willett shot 5-under-par 67 on Sunday, and fellow Englishman Lee Westwood (69) and a crestfallen Spieth (73) tied for second place, three shots back of the 28-year-old surprise winner, who had never won on the PGA Tour.
“Words can’t describe how I’m feeling right now,” said Willett, who trailed Spieth by three shots at the start of the final round and was five behind with nine holes to play.
“It’s a tough one,” said Spieth, who opened with 66 but shot over par in every round afterward.
Willett finished at 5-under-par 283, the highest winning score since Zach Johnson won with 289 in 2007. Only six players finished the tournament in red under-par numbers this year, with wind a huge factor in the first three rounds.
Though Greg Norman blew a six-shot lead from the start of the final round of the 1996 Masters, Spieth’s disasters didn’t start until after he’d made four consecutive birdies on Nos. 6-9. He made back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11, then made quadruple bogey on the devilish par-3 12th, where he put two balls into the water and one into a bunker.
Spieth shot 5-over 41 on the back nine, and Willett had 33 coming home. He didn’t have a bogey all day, but Spieth had four bogeys and the quadruple bogey.
“Anything can happen in Augusta, especially around Amen Corner,” Westwood said.
Asked what happened at the start of the back nine, Spieth said, “I went bogey, bogey, quad – 5, 5, 7.”
Said Willett: “Bad things happen in golf. I feel fortunate I was in the position I could pounce on it.”
Willett became the first European to earn the green jacket since Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 and the first Englishman since Nick Faldo in 1996.
“I still can’t believe I’m going to be in and amongst them,” said Willett, who entered the week ranked 12th in the world. “And in the champions locker room. It really boggles me.”
Two weeks ago, Willett wasn’t even sure he would be playing this week. His wife, Nicole, was due to give birth for the first time on the final round of the Masters, but the boy, Zachariah, came the Wednesday before Masters Week. Willett had said he wouldn’t play if the baby had not arrived in time, saying there would be plenty more Masters to play in.
After the birth, Nicole stayed home to take care of the new arrival.
“Fortunately enough, he listened to my prayers and he came early,” Willett said. “But yeah, it’s just been the most ridiculously awesome 12 days, I guess. Words can’t describe what I’m feeling right now, but words definitely can’t describe how I was feeling when you get to hold something that me and my wife have made. It’s just been incredibly surreal.”
Spieth offered his congratulations to Willett during an interview afterwards.
“I’m obviously happy for Danny,” Spieth said. “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. I certainly wanted to control fate myself.”
Starting a family so close to the Masters didn’t affect Willett’s play in Augusta.
“I’ve been fantastic mentally this week going through my processes, realizing that each shot is its own separate thing and trying to just go through with the correct process and pull the shot off,” he said. “Luckily, we dropped on some really good numbers today.”
Spieth, who had led the previous seven rounds to set a Masters record, seemed ready to cruise into the clubhouse and become the fourth back-to-back winner and first to do it in wire-to-wire fashion. He went up by five shots over Willett with the four straight birdies before the turn.
“I was playing a dream front nine,” he said.
Then it all fell apart for the 22-year-old Texan.
“It was a tough 30 minutes for me that hopefully I never experience again,” Spieth said of playing Nos. 10-12 in 6-over. “Big picture,
this one will hurt. It will take a while.
“I can’t imagine that was fun for anyone to experience, other than maybe Danny’s team,” Spieth said, “and those who are fans of him.”
It was the worst back-nine collapse since 1959, when Arnold Palmer played his final eight holes in 2-over – with a triple bogey on No. 12 – while Art Wall went on to win by playing that stretch in 5-under. When Palmer teed off on No. 12 that year, he had a five-shot lead.
Making the loss more painful for Spieth was that, as the defending champion, he had to present the green jacket to Willett on both television and in the green jacket ceremony on the putting green.
“As you can imagine, I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” Spieth said. “It was very tough given that it’s so soon after the finish, and it was tough, but I thought that he handled it with extreme class.
“And I felt that I stood up there and smiled like I should, and appreciated everybody who makes this great tournament possible.”
Watching the final round from Nashville, Tenn., was James Hobbs, Willett’s coach when he played at Jacksonville State University. After Hobbs’ team played a practice round Sunday at East Tennessee State’s invitational, he watched the Masters.
“Danny came to JSU as a 17-year-old, a little immature, but he matured very, very quickly into a really fine player and person,” Hobbs said. “All along, you could tell that he would be a good professional some day. You can dream big, but you can’t ever think it’s definitely going to happen.
“I love his sense of humor and his confident attitude. He had a deep belief in what he could do, what he could accomplish, and that was contagious with my other players. He was the type to always encourage the other guys to play better than they were capable of.
“There was no golf course he didn’t think he could play and no competition he didn’t think he could beat.”