Upstart Englishman Danny Willett slipped on the green jacket with a flawless final round, but the 80th Masters will be remembered as the tournament that Jordan Spieth threw away. This story appears in the April 18-25, 2016, edition of Sports Illustrated.
No golf course is haunted quite like Augusta National. Swirling through Amen Corner are the ghosts of Masters past, their presence as palpable as the breezes that ruffle the dogwoods. There’s a dark side to all of the Masters’ mythmaking, with so many Sundays defined by suffering. Ken Venturi’s six three-putts, Ed Sneed’s 72nd hole try that teetered on the lip of the cup but would not fall, Curtis Strange’s chunked chip into the water, Scott Hoch’s yip from 18 inches, Greg Norman’s blown six-shot lead, Rory McIlroy’s misadventure in the woods—they’re all as much a part of the fabric of the tournament as the green jacket itself. On Sunday night three-time champion Nick Faldo stood behind the clubhouse and tried to make sense of another wrenching finish. “You can’t escape the past here,” he said. “Every memory is bolted on to another memory. For every great moment there’s a tragic one too. That’s what makes this place what it is.”
It was 20 years ago that Faldo won his third jacket, but that tournament will always be remembered for Norman’s agonizing collapse, just as the 80th Masters will always be more about who lost than who won. Danny Willett prevailed on Sunday by playing the round of his life, and the 28-year-old Englishman has the game and the fortitude to enjoy a long, fruitful career. But this was the Masters that Jordan Spieth kicked away. Riding a string of four consecutive birdies, he arrived on the 10th tee five strokes in the clear and on the precipice of so much history: With a second victory Spieth would have matched the number of Masters wins of Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros; he would have become only the fourth player to win back-to-back green jackets; a third major championship victory at 22 years and nine months would have put him almost a year ahead of Jack Nicklaus’s pace in winning a record 18 majors. But Spieth proceeded to go bogey, bogey, quadruple bogey, rinsing his tee shot at the par-3 12th hole and then fatting the ensuing pitch into the water. Around the same time Willett was making birdie at the 13th and 14th holes. The denouement was stunning in its swiftness; in the space of 40 minutes Willett made up eight strokes on Spieth, and then he birdied the 16th hole to plunge the knife even deeper. At one point Spieth turned to his caddie, Michael Greller, and said, “Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing.”
The breakdown was total: physical, mental and attitudinal. Spieth blamed his bogey at the 10th hole on a shift in approach—instead of continuing to attack he began playing prevent defense, and a passive swing with a six-iron left him in the front bunker. Willett, meanwhile, was tidying up his two-putt birdie on the par-5 13th. The lead was down to three. For much of this Masters, Spieth’s swing had been out of sequence, his arms getting trapped behind his body on the downswing, and it happened again when he entered the three-hole stretch of Amen Corner, as he push-sliced his tee shot at the 11th into the trees. Up ahead on the 14th Willett stuffed a 9-iron to four feet. Three holes back, Spieth did well to leave himself an eight-footer for par. The putter has always been the difference-maker for him, but Spieth knew he was leaning too heavily on his moneymaker. “Can’t do that every single round,” he had said the night before, and on 11 he burned the left edge. So the lead was down to a stroke as Spieth stepped up to the scariest little shot in golf.
He chose a nine-iron at the 155-yard par-3 and after consulting with Greller agreed that a hard draw was the right play. Standing over the ball something went terribly wrong: Spieth got it in his mind to play a fade, even though it was that exact shot, on this same hole in 2014, that had led to another ball in the hazard, part of a mid-round swoon during which he lost a two-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in his Masters debut. “I didn’t take that extra deep breath and really focus on my line,” Spieth said. “Instead I just put a quick swing on it.” His ball landed well short of the green and rolled back into Rae’s Creek. Rather than going to the drop zone, Spieth chose a spot that left an 80-yard pitch. He laid the sod over it, the ball barely making it to the water. It’s not an overstatement to call it one of the worst pressure shots in golf history. “I’m not really sure what happened,” Spieth said. This was honesty, not deflection.
As for Willett, he didn’t make a bogey during his airtight 67, and at the par-3 16th his cold-blooded 8-iron to seven feet and subsequent putt were the shots of the tournament. For the last two decades Fleet Street has lamented a lost generation of Next Faldos, but now Willett is in the vanguard of an English invasion: Five of the lads finished tied for 10th or better at this Masters. “Danny grew up with a lot of talented players,” says his father-in-law, Paul Harris. “They’re all about the same physically, but the difference with him is here”—he pointed at his head—”and here”—pointing at his heart.
CONFIDENTIAL: Making Sense of Spieth’s Collapse, Willett’s Win
Golf swings can be fixed, but it’s harder to heal what’s on the inside. “This one will hurt,” Spieth said. “It will take awhile.” It can take longer than that. Norman, at 41, was never the same player after Augusta National broke his heart. Faldo was too polite to mention him by name on Sunday, but he did say, “A lot of players, when they lose here, they carry the scars forever.”
What made Spieth’s collapse so stunning was that it was the third straight day he had squandered control of the tournament. He opened his title defense with a 66 despite hitting only 12 greens in regulation—”A clinical display of scoring,” said his playing partner Paul Casey—and when Spieth birdied the 8th hole of the second round he led by five shots, evoking his record-tying, four-shot victory a year earlier. But Spieth had been fighting his swing all along, and in the relentless winds his discomfort became noticeable. He was fidgety over the ball and backed away so often to wipe his sweaty palms that, inevitably, the spoof Twitter feed @greller_towel was created. Spieth bogeyed four of the final 10 holes and the 74 sliced his lead to a lone stroke, over McIlroy.
Lurking in an eighth-place tie was Willett, four back. His wife, Nicole, had been due to give birth to their first child on Masters Sunday, and Danny was resigned to skipping his second trip to Augusta. But the golf gods, he said on Sunday night, “listened to my prayers and [my son] came early.” On the European tour, where he has won five times, Willett is known as a tireless worker, but for more than a week he hardly touched a club while caring for Nicole and baby Zach. He blew into Augusta late on Monday; as the 89th and final player to register, his caddie was given a jumpsuit numbered 89, a lovely omen given that Nicklaus got that number before his remarkable comeback victory 30 years ago. However much Willett missed his wife and child back in England, he confided to his old coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State, James Hobb, “I’m so glad to be here—I can finally get some sleep!”
The narrative of Spieth’s season had been his battle against burnout after a winter of cash-grabs that took him to China, Australia, the Bahamas, Abu Dhabi and Singapore. Spieth seemed amused by the chatter about his so-called slump; shortly before the Masters he splurged on a new Range Rover, telling a friend, “I’m rewarding myself for my mediocrity.” But by the end of the third round it was impossible not to detect physical and mental fatigue. After making a careless double bogey at the 11th, he was one over for the day, but Spieth dug deep to birdie three of the next four holes. His lead was back to a commanding four strokes. Once again he squandered it with a sloppy finish, push-slicing a pair of tee shots and ending the round bogey, double bogey for a 73 that left him a stroke ahead of 24-year-old Masters rookie Smylie Kaufman (who shouldn’t be confused with his brother, Luckie). Asked how he would clear his head, Spieth said, “Probably go break something really quick.” In fact, he already had—it was a record seventh straight round that concluded with his holding the outright Masters lead.
With a hard-fought 72, Willett moved up to a tie for fifth, three back. The firm, fast setup was perfectly suited for his brand of precise, calculating golf. Willett would make only 13 birdies on the week, the lowest total by a Masters champion this century, but minimizing mistakes is the key to thriving at a major. “Utterly unflappable” is how Faldo describes his countryman.
Spieth, for all of his success, still struggles with the volatility in his game. Had Dustin Johnson nudged home his eagle putt on the final hole of last year’s U.S. Open, Spieth never would have lived down his double bogey on the 71st hole. (In fairness, he sandwiched it with crucial birdies.) Johnson’s three-putt handed Spieth the win and sent him to the Old Course trying to become the second player to win the first three legs of the Grand Slam, joining Hogan. Tied for the lead after a birdie at the 70th hole, he missed an eight-foot par putt at the Road Hole and then made two awful swings at 18 when he had to have a birdie.
His wildest ride of all came on Sunday; beginning at the 5th, Spieth went nine consecutive holes without making a par. It is to his everlasting credit that he fought so hard after his blowup, with birdies on 13 and 15 giving him a glimmer of hope, but he missed an eight-footer for birdie on 16 that would have brought him within one. He still could have forced a playoff with two closing birdies, but a weak approach at the 17th left him bunkered. When he failed to jar that shot, a delirious celebration touched off across two continents, as Nicole had stayed up deep into the night to watch the telecast.
The victory pushed Willett to ninth in the World Ranking. In this blockbuster year for the sport, he will most likely represent England at the Rio Olympics, and he’ll be a stalwart at the Ryder Cup. As Spieth tries to regroup, the Masters’ long history offers some solace. In 1959, Arnold Palmer led by five with seven to play but triple-bogeyed the 12th (with a 6-iron!) and lost to Art Wall Jr. The King came back the next year to take the Masters as well as the U.S. Open. Then again, McIlroy coughed up a four-shot Sunday lead in 2011 and has been a woebegone presence around Augusta ever since; the birdieless 77 he shot while paired with Spieth on Saturday was the latest disaster. McIlroy did rebound to win the ’11 U.S. Open and has tacked on three other major titles, but even at 26, it’s impossible not to wonder if he’ll join Norman, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Ernie Els and other megatalents who seemed to have the perfect games for Augusta National but were unable to exorcise their demons there.
At least Spieth has won his Masters, but on Sunday night even that was a mixed blessing—as defending champ he was compelled to present Willett his green jacket. It’s hard to imagine a crueler ceremony in all of sports. When it mercifully ended, and after Spieth had displayed a winning grace in answering questions about his failures, he made his way through the old clubhouse, ashen and glassy-eyed, a dead man walking with whom no one dared to make eye contact. Once outside, he started to slip into the sanctuary of a waiting car, but at that moment Faldo appeared like a specter. Spieth listened emotionlessly to the words of encouragement and then disappeared into the night, leaving behind so much history, good and bad. It was 39 years ago that Clifford Roberts, Augusta National’s retired chairman, shot himself dead on the club grounds, down by Ike’s Pond. The old-timers who work in the clubhouse will tell you they still think of him when the floorboards creak.