-04/10/16

Danny Willett won the 2016 Masters with a bogey-free 67 on Sunday. He won it on the sixth green, the 16th tee box and especially the 18th fairway where a cut iron gave him a can’t-miss two-putt par to finish at 5-under.

He also won it on number 12 when Jordan Spieth lost it. Never has anyone literally given away a Green Jacket quite like Spieth.

He made the turn with a five-shot lead after four consecutive birdies to close the front nine. If it only ended there, Willett would still be a somewhat anonymous Englishman, albeit the 12th-ranked player in the world, and Spieth would be fighting hyperbole with every swing. Words don’t do justice to what transpired.

As the great Red Smith wrote of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, “The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Spieth bogeyed 10. He bogeyed 11. Then on 12, the unflappable, poised, mature-beyond-his-years, 22-year-old, two-time major winner choked. Spieth sent two shots into Rae’s Creek as silence, shock and awe dominated Amen Corner. The two balls never had a chance. The first bounced off the slope and crept into the drink. The second was a flub. Or maybe a chunk. Either way, Spieth’s shot drowned in the water and so too did the Texan’s Masters hopes.

It was the kind of nautical disaster that might inspire a James Cameron film or a Gordon Lightfoot song. Spieth sent his second drop into the greenside bunker—the water, the beach, an image that Spieth could get behind if he could only get away. He carded a seven and seemingly reset the trajectory of the sport as well as the Masters.

Meanwhile, far away from the collapse, Willett and countryman Lee Westwood battled down the stretch. The former birdied 13 and 14 and suddenly found himself leading Spieth by three. The latter, he of 18 top-10’s in majors without a win, chipped in on 15 for eagle to threaten his good friend Willett.

But Willett wouldn’t be denied. Even as Dustin Johnson made a charge. Even as Spieth briefly rose from the dead with birdies on 13 and 15 and a dart into the 16th green. Even as he nervously paced down the treacherous two closing holes.

By the time Willett tapped in his par on 18, he had removed his sweater to reveal a green polo. After the round, Willett insisted he was warm, but the symbolism was too accessible. He was wearing green the whole time. We just didn’t see it. Twenty years after Sir Nick Faldo took advantage of Greg Norman’s epic gag, Willett did the same to Spieth to become the first English golfer to win the Masters since Faldo.

Willett’s story is as happy as Spieth’s is gut-wrenching. He’s played exceptional golf the last two seasons and yet he was the last one to officially accept his Masters invitation. Willett’s first son was born last week. Had he been born this weekend, as doctors initially predicted, Willett would have skipped the tournament.

Spieth might have wished that for himself as he stood in Butler Cabin with the newly minted champion.

Spieth looked unsettled all weekend despite his 65-hole lead. He backed off short putts. He couldn’t find consistency off the tee. And he failed to commit to his approach shots, which left him in unenviable positions. In addition to Sunday’s quad, Spieth carded three double-bogeys in his four rounds. It was his B-/C+ game and it nearly gave him his second consecutive Green Jacket.

Augusta fought back as well. The course was embarrassed by Spieth and co. a year ago. The counter-punch came in the form of a stiff Georgia wind and diabolical greens. Phil Mickelson missed the cut while fellow former champions, men playing well and thought to be favorites again, like Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel barely threatened the leaderboard. Spieth watched as top rivals Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy each bowed out of the tournament.

Must Read: Jack Nicklaus on Spieth, Willett

The Masters mixed the best and most difficult qualities of the other three majors into a scintillating weekend. Spieth couldn’t quite survive it all.

We’re left with a confounding result. At 22, Spieth has gone 2-1-T2 in his three Masters appearances. He’s now posted five consecutive top-4 finishes in majors.

None of that matters now and may not in the future either. Spieth could win 20 majors and it will always be one too few. He made the 2016 Masters his own for all the wrong reasons. Danny Willett is both a champion and a footnote in golf history.