Coming into the 2016 Masters Tournament, Danny Willett fit the recent profile of potential winners.
They came into Augusta National Golf Club on form with either a recent win, as Jordan Spieth (2015) and Bubba Watson (2014) did, or a high finish (Adam Scott in 2013).
Willett’s pre-Masters victory in 2016 came in the Dubai Desert Classic, one of the European Tour’s top events, in early February. He’d also tied for third in the PGA Tour event at Doral just a month before the Masters.
However, with opening rounds of 70-74-72 in the 2016 Masters, Willett was lost in the long shadow cast by Spieth. The defending champion led after each of the first three rounds and was one ahead of Smylie Kaufman – and three in front of Willett – entering the final round.
Early on in the final round, it seemed more of the same as Spieth shot 32 on the front nine to build a five-shot lead over Willett.
But Spieth started the back nine bogey-bogey-quadruple bogey and staggered home in 5-over 41. Willett, who had a bogey-free round of 5-under-par 67, shot 33 on the back.
Spieth finished with 73 and tied for second with Willett’s playing partner, fellow Englishman Lee Westwood, who had 69.
The Texan’s hopes of repeating were washed away on the par-3 12th hole. After hitting two balls in the water, he hit his fifth shot into a bunker and emerged with 7. He’d never found the water there in his previous 11 trips to the second leg of Amen Corner.
Just like that, Spieth had gone from 7-under entering the back nine to 1-under.
“I was waiting for someone to, as a little joke, to put a 7 back up there,” Willett said of the Augusta National leaderboards.
“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.
“It was a tough 30 minutes for me that hopefully I never experience again,” Spieth said of his poor play. “I can’t imagine that was fun for anyone to experience, other than maybe Danny’s team and those who are fans of him.”
“Bad things happen in golf. I feel fortunate I was in the position I could pounce on it,” said Willett, who made birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 16.
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 under par in 2016, with wind playing a huge factor the first three rounds.
Going into the final round, Spieth had led the previous seven rounds to set a Masters record. He opened the 2016 tournament with 66 but shot over par in the next two rounds (74-73) and admitted after the tournament that he was not comfortable with his swing going into Sunday.
It showed on the final round’s back nine. The 41 was the worst back-nine collapse by a 54-hole leader since Rory McIlroy shot 43 in 2011. Spieth’s in good company, though: eight other times a 54-hole leader, including Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, has shot 40 or worse on the final nine.
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 near the putting green.
“As you can imagine, I can’t think of anybody else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” Willett 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.”
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, when Greg Norman staged a monumental collapse of his own.
“I still can’t believe I’m going to be in and amongst them,” Willett said. “And in the Champions Locker Room. It really boggles me.”
Watching the final round from Nashville, Tenn., was James Hobbs, Willett’s coach when he played at Jacksonville State University.
“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.”