Tour Confidential: Making Sense of Spieth Collapse, Willett Win

April 11, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Where does Jordan Spieth’s back-nine collapse rank among the worst meltdowns in major championship history?

Jessica Marksbury, associate editor, GOLF Magazine (@Jess_Marksbury): I think it still ranks behind the infamous 1999 Van de Velde collapse at Carnoustie. Jordan just didn’t seem like himself for the last three rounds. He was fighting his swing, and if it wasn’t for his miraculous putting, he likely wouldn’t be in the mix at all. It’s hard to win a green jacket with three triples and a quad over four rounds. At the end of the day, he still rebounded from his Sunday blowup on No. 12 with birdies on Nos. 13 and 15 to give himself a chance. 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Oh, I don’t consider it a meltdown at all. I consider it a single-swing brain cramp, and one he will recover from without delay, even though he’ll never pass that way again. 

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Agree, Michael. A loss of concentration, as Spieth put it. But I’d bet there was also some doubt in his mind because of what happened on 10 and 11. He blocked his tee shot at 10 with a 3-wood and lost about 40 yards of distance when he missed the slope, hit an indifferent second and a so-so bunker shot. Put a shorter iron in his hand there and he makes par there, if not birdie. And he had a chance to save par at 11 with a putt straight up the hill. Looked like he pulled it. The 5-5 start to the back nine was a killer.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): Michael, I’ll grant you that hole 12 was the only real meltdown, but we’re talking three poor swings in a row, the second of which was horrific. But please give me another noun that would suffice for a back-nine 41, from the defending champ, under reasonable scoring conditions, when your closest pursuers are oh-fer in the majors. Spieth did recover nicely enough, and had a chance to win until a missed putt at 16 and a lackluster approach at 17, so it doesn’t qualify as a Hall-of-Fame meltdown. Those I reserve for Van de Velde, for Arnold at the 1966 U.S. Open (seven shot lead with nine to play) and for Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters, where he led Faldo by six going into the final round and wound up losing by five.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I think even Spieth would call it a meltdown. He admitted he and caddie Michael Greller agreed to aim over the bunker and not at the pin on 12, but when he stood up there over the ball he couldn’t get himself to do it. He decided to play a little cut into the pin, which he admitted was exactly how he rinsed his tee shot there in 2014, dooming his chances. This was an extremely rare case where Spieth didn’t learn something he probably should have. 

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens): For prolonged agony, it doesn’t come close to Greg Norman’s in ’96, but given the steeliness and maturity and smarts Spieth has shown so far in his career, it was more surprising. McIlroy lost a four-shot lead at Augusta on the final nine in 2011, but in that case, he was chasing his first major, which made it less of a shock. We might recall that McIlroy bounced back from that crushing experience to win the U.S. Open a few months later. I’m not saying Spieth’s going to do the same, but this disappointment will not keep him down for long. He’s got too much heart for that. 

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Right, Josh. Norman’s collapse is his own unique brand of pain, because he’d never won (and never would win) his own green jacket. Spieth can draw on his experience as a Masters winner to help get him through this. He’ll no doubt win another one. You can’t say the same for Norman or Sneed…or maybe even Rory. 

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): No meltdown, just a recurring bad swing all week. He gave away five shots on the back nine Saturday and seven more Sunday. If he gives away only four, he wins a boring Masters. It’s not a meltdown, he came back with birdies at 13 and 15 and a chance at 16. He had his B- game and he almost walked away with this Masters. He’s always going to think he should’ve won this one, and he should have. Same as Ed Sneed and Scott Hoch.

MORE: View the Leaderboard  |  Inside Spieth’s Meltdown

2. Spieth went bogey-bogey-quad to start the back nine, and he admitted he and caddie Michael Greller might have made a strategic error with how they approached the 12th hole. What’s the biggest takeaway from this shocking ending?

Marksbury: You can’t blame a player for finding the water on No. 12; it happens all the time. The real shocker was the superchunk that followed. Where did that come from? And then, hitting the fifth shot over the green into the bunker … I’m still scratching my head on that one. Was he overly worried about protecting his lead after leaking some oil on Nos. 10 and 11? Maybe. I guess my biggest takeaway is that Jordan is human after all. 

Morift: I’d actually started to believe Jordan was incapable of making dumb mental mistakes, just as I once assumed the same about Tiger. Both are obviously human. The biggest takeaway for me is that the Vulcan mind-meld he and Greller had working in 2015 is showing cracks. Something seems to be wrong there.

Bamberger: He said it already: step up there and hit a draw shot. If the wind catches it, play from the back bunker. You can win from there.

Godich: It sounds like his mindset changed when he stepped on the 10th tee: shoot even par coming home. He’d made four straight birdies (and five on the front nine). It’s got to be tough to shift gears like that and start playing defensively.

Passov: At least he acknowledged the strategic error. I’ll borrow from colleague GVS who earlier noted Tom Weiskopf’s famous admonition at the 1988 Masters, “Never, ever, ever, ever aim for that right-side pin on Sunday if you have the lead.” Stranger still is how many weird flares, with driver and irons that Jordan Spieth hits. Really unusual for a World Number 1, 2 or 3. But yes, the shocker was his subsequent pitch, that barely reached the water. I’m still stunned.

Ritter: Spieth said afterward that he didn’t feel comfortable with the spot of his penalty drop, so that was a second mental error. No doubt his head was spinning wildly in those moments, but still … his chunky pitch shot barely reached the water. Still can’t believe it.

Godich: Well, there were no issues with the swing last year when he made a record 28 birdies. It’s no secret that he was fighting his swing all week. And yet with his B- game and even after carding a triple and three doubles over the last 49 holes, he was bested by only one player. Pretty remarkable when you think about it.

Van Sickle: The big mental error, after hearing from Spieth, is that he said every time he tried to hit a cut fade, he made a bad swing like he did at 12. It’s Sunday, you’ve got a three-shot lead, forget the fade and hit your stock little draw. I don’t buy the mental error on not going to the drop zone and not having a great yardage. I think that’s cover for, I laid the sod over the ball. Nobody likes to admit that.

Sens: As takeaways go, it was great reminder of what a mind-bending game this is … that one of the greatest players in the world, a guy with two majors under his belt and seasoning beyond his years and a great caddie on his bag, could still, under the bell-jar pressure of the moment, compound a physical mistake with a mental error.


3. With Spieth’s struggles, Englishman Danny Willett emerged and won his first major championship on Sunday. He shot a final-round 67 to finish 5-under and clear Lee Westwood and Spieth by three. Is this the first of many majors for the 28-year-old or is he the next, say, Trevor Immelman?

Bamberger: He’s a flinty son-of-a-gun. He’ll make money for the next two decades. He looks like the kind of guy who backs down from nothing, so if he can contend he can win.

Morfit: I started telling anyone within earshot that Willett was going to be a star after a watched him at the WGC-Match Play at Harding Park last year. He works the ball both ways with ease, has a really cool swing, putts better than average, and is full of self-belief. He’s got it.

Marksbury: Hard to say at this point. Willett had a brilliant performance at the perfect moment, but he also had the benefit of coming in under the radar without any of the pressure and attention that faced the likes of Spieth, McIlroy and Jason Day. Willett’s career has been on an upward trajectory for the past several years, and now he’s a Masters champion. It will be interesting to see how he performs in the majors now that the spotlight will be shining on him. One thing’s for sure: he’ll be exempt into every important event for years to come, so we’ll have plenty of time to watch him.

Godich: He’s a bulldog with an air-tight swing and a top-10 world ranking. I’d say Mr. Willett is here to stay.

MORE: Watch Danny Willett Find Out He’s Won the Masters

Van Sickle: I had Willett on my team in a hypothetical pool that may or may not have really been held. He hits it straight, he’s tough and he putts well. He’s going to be near the lead in more majors, and that means he may win some more. And let’s not be hard on Immelman, who had some injuries that derailed his career.

Passov: He’s clearly a very good player, who’s been trending up solidly for 18 months. His spirited run at the Open at St. Andrews last year, and his third-place at the Match Play shows he can hang with the big boys. Still, we’ve had a lot of talented young guys who went on brief, if furious hot streaks in recent years, then kinda disappeared. I’m not sure he’s so outstanding in various phases that he’s going to be a reliable contender in future majors and I’m not sure this was even a statement performance, given he had almost zero pressure of dueling for the lead. I will tip my hat to a big boy finish, however. Great birdie at 16, great approach at 18.

Godich: And how about the chip shot at 17?

Ritter: And leaving driver in the bag while hitting a fairway-splitting 3-wood off the tee on 18? He only played a few holes with the lead, but he executed the shots and made great decisions when the spotlight came his way. 

Sens: Clearly, he has that un-teachable pressure gene, so that, along with that beautifully simple swing of his, will serve him well. And appears to have the fire of a guy who scraped his way up from fairly humble beginnings. We’re going to see a lot of him. But many majors? That’s a tall order, and it’s way too early to tell. 

Van Sickle: No matter whether he knew he had the lead or not, that tee shot at 16 and that putt were big, big, big. Willett has guts. You’ve gotta like that.

4. Rory McIlroy was just one off the lead after 36 holes and was paired with Spieth on Saturday, forming the biggest pairing of the weekend, but McIlroy shot 77 and fizzled out of contention. Why don’t he and Augusta get along?

Bamberger: I don’t know, but his bunker shot on his 18th hole in his second Masters round might be haunting him more than we know.

Marksbury: Good point, Michael. Who knows what kind of scar tissue lingers from previous disappointments? But putting was also an issue for him all week. You have to make putts, and Rory didn’t find the hole often enough, especially during Saturday’s round with Spieth. 

Godich: Rory could use a little of Spieth’s grit. I know things weren’t going his way on Saturday, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more fight out of him on the back nine. Perhaps then he’s only two or three down going into Sunday, instead of five. He sounded resigned when he suggested he thought all was lost when he fell so far back. It was Saturday!

Morfit: We should be concerned about Rory’s performance when paired with Spieth on Saturday. I’m a huge McIlroy fan, but the kid from N. Ireland showed pretty much nothing. I know the conditions were hard, but zero birdies compared to Spieth’s five? That’s pretty terrible. The last year or so has been a huge mindbender for McIlroy. I really think he was settling in for a long run at the top when all of the sudden the earth shifted under him. He has yet to recover.

Sens: Agreed on those points. There’s some scar tissue. But this looks more to me like a case of wanting something so much it becomes more elusive. Like the homecoming queen I tried asking out in high school … she could smell the desperation. No way it was gonna happen. Oh, and besides that, power to the best putter, which Rory wasn’t this week. 

Ritter: Putting is generally Rory’s weakness (and the jury is out on his new left-hand low method) but I still can’t believe how erratically his played alongside Spieth on Saturday. Rory seems a long, long way from winning one of these.

Passov: I honestly thought Rory had it dialed in when he made that great par-putt save at 18 to close out his second round. He had battled and was just a shot back, after Spieth’s poor finish. In other words, he had confronted all those expectations, and was solidly in the hunt. I have no idea where that third round came from, but I agree with Mark. He was just playing lousy and he had this vacant look about him that seemed all too accepting of his fate. The all-time greats had a way of turning 77s at majors into 73s, just to keep themselves in it. Rory needs to find that gear.

Morfit: Does he believe he can beat Spieth? He sure didn’t look like he did. Where has our Rory McIlroy gone?

Van Sickle: I’ve never been convinced about Rory on the greens and I’m not sure he’ll solve Augusta’s putting surfaces. I mean, ever. There’s a difference between being strong and chiseled. Rory is chiseled. Strong helps you play golf better. Chiseled is for looks. Every hour he spent getting chiseled, after he was already strong, was an hour that could’ve been better spent putting.


5. The wind and unusually chilly weather were the talk of the tournament the first three days. Was Augusta National set up too tough for the conditions?

Bamberger: Way too hard. The tournament was in serious danger of being a snooze. The coats have almost lost their way. 

Morfit: I agree, Michael. Somehow, this Masters never quite came together until, I guess, the train wreck at the end that gave us something to talk about. I was fine with Tiger not playing. He made the right decision. The buzzkill was Thursday, when it was shaping up to be a Jordan Spieth-Jason Day clash for the second straight major until Day shot 41 on the back.

Godich: Some of the Friday pin placements were utterly ridiculous, especially given the conditions. What’s the reasoning behind settling up the course so tough for three days, then softening it on Sunday?

Marksbury: I don’t think so. The wind made things interesting! I love watching guys grind their way around Augusta. The greens did look especially treacherous this year, though.

Sens: Augusta National controls most things, just not the wind. And with the winds whirling like that, I agree, some of the pins seemed especially sadistic. But the winning score was still five under. And the adversity tends to bring out some interesting characters. Take a leathery guy like Langer: we might not have had his storyline to enjoy if conditions had been otherwise. 

Ritter: It was a tough setup, but I still enjoyed this tournament. Guys could make birdie or triple on just about any hole, which added suspense. Spieth made three doubles through three rounds and had the lead. There were big moves up and down the leaderboard for four days. The traditional Sunday setup provided some roars. That said, I don’t think Augusta needs to ramp it up any further.

Passov: The Augusta poobahs seem to feel that score is irrelevant for three days–so long as it hovers somewhere around par–knowing that the hole locations for the fourth round will inevitably produce the fireworks that CBS and the rest of us crave. Yet, I wasn’t too bothered by the big numbers for three days. It was really, unusually windy and while conditions like that generally don’t yield low scores, it does elicit necessary displays of patience, course management and the like, and that’s interesting to me as well.

Van Sickle: Was it too hard? No. Was it hard? Yes. The targets for landing shots on these greens so you can make birdies are the size of car hoods. Ridiculously small. In the wind and with the greens really firm, hitting them is like trying to pitch pennies into a thimble. I expected softer, easier scoring conditions on Sunday to bring back the roars but that didn’t happen. It was still tough, which makes me think that yeah, maybe the Masters czars were a bit ticked off by last year’s record scoring and Spieth briefly getting to -19.

6.) This was a bizarre Masters on several levels. But would you call it a satisfying Masters or a disappointing one?

Bamberger: Disappointing. Great, deserving, surprising winner. But disappointing.

Morfit: Disappointing. Willett is a deserving champion, but for all the marquee names who came into this thing playing well–Phil, Rory, Day, Jordan, Bubba, Adam Scott–the only guy who really brought it was Spieth. That was a bit of an anticlimax.

Sens: Sunday at Augusta is usually nail-biting, and sometimes anticlimactic. Today was neither. It was dizzying. 

Marksbury: I can’t say I wasn’t satisfied, because the final two hours of play were seriously exciting. But I was disappointed to see Jordan lose the way he did. No one wants to see that happen to a player, especially a media darling and fan favorite like him. 

Godich: Both. Given the conditions, the setup was just too hard. And while we got an exciting finish, it was awfully painful to watch. No doubt about it, we’ll be talking about this one for a long time.

Ritter: I want to feel happy for Willett, but let’s face it: this one was a gut punch.

Passov: Disappointing. Yes, there was plenty of drama, good and bad, which is why many of us watch, but this was Spieth’s tournament from the opening nine holes. He was going to defend in historic, wire-to-wire fashion … and instead, we got Danny Willett and his stress-free 67.

Van Sickle: This Masters failed on two levels. One, the course played so difficult in the wind, and even in the calm on Sunday, that casual viewers had to be thinking, “These guys suck. They’re just not very good. This isn’t interesting.” Two, the wrong guy won the Masters in a lot of ways, like Arnie fumbling the Open to Casper in ’66 or Hoch and Floyd losing the Masters to Faldo. Willett played a great final round but he doesn’t win if Spieth doesn’t do Earnest Byner fumbling at the goal line. Spieth’s gaffe knocked the wind out of all of us.