HE was scheduled to become a father for the first time on Masters Sunday. Baby Zachariah arrived early into the world, though. It allowed daddy to become the new Masters champion.
He’s the first European to claim a Green Jacket since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999; the first Englishman since Nick Faldo in 1996.
The last of his victories resulted from a last-day collapse from Greg Norman. It was a case of deja vu for Willett as the door for his first major was opened unexpectedly by defending champion Jordan Spieth. The 22-year-old turned for home with a five-shot lead. It seemed certain that he’d join Faldo, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to have won this event back-to-back.
This is Augusta, though. We should expect the unexpected, especially in Amen Corner. Spieth came a cropper there, dropping six shots in three holes. A quadruple-bogey 7 at the 12th, where he put two balls in the water, caused the bulk of the damage. In less than an hour, he’d gone from coasting to victory to three behind Willett. As you’d expect from him, Spieth battled to the end. He’d shot himself in the foot, though.
Credit to Willett, though. His closing 67 was a flawless effort. Finishing on five-under 283, the 28-year-old won by three shots from Spieth and a fellow Englisman, Lee Westwood. Spieth signed off with a 73, four shots more than Westwood.
Those huge Augusta roars had been few and far between the two previous days. The tough conditions had seen to that. They were back, though, as the final circuit was played on a relatively benign day in Georgia. Irishman Shane Lowry, in fact, probably raised the biggest one of the week when he made a hole-in-one at the 16th with an 8-iron. It was the 16th ace there in the event’s history and, fittingly came in ‘16. Lowry loved it and no wonder. No 17 came soon aferwards. Davis Love, the US Ryder Cup captain, made this one with a 7-iron. The roar for it echoed through the tall pines for ages. A couple of hours later, Louis Oosthuizen created history with a third ace in one round on that hole. His was incredible, hitting the ball of playing partner JB Holmes and almost knocking it in as well.
To the disappointment of two German journalists sitting next to this correspondent in the media centre, Langer’s dream of landing what would have been his 100th career victory were soon dashed. He dropped a shot at the first, failed to birdie the second - having made 4s at all four of the long holes as he got himself into contention with Saturday’s 70 - then ran up a double-bogey 6 at the third. His playing partner, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, also fell out of contention early on.
Instead, the potential threat to Spieth’s back-to-back bid started to be posed by Willett, Westwood and Kjeldsen. This was just Willett’s second appearance here. His preparations also involved a trip home to Sheffield after the WGC-Match Play in Austin to be at the birth of his first child. But the 28-year-old is perhaps the most improved player on the planet over the last year or so. Dressed from head to toe in white, he followed five straight pars by holing from 11 feet for birdie at the sixth. Another shot was picked up two holes later.
Westwood, who now lives in Edinburgh, made his move with three birdies in four holes from the sixth in the same group as Willett. The excitement was building for Westwood in his 17th Masters. Runner-up in 2010, he’d manouevred himself into contention again heading into the back nine. Kjeldsen was right there, too. The 40-year-old Dane holed two long ones for birdie-3s at the third and fifth. A stuffy competitor, the 2014 Irish Open winner matched Westwood’s score going out to also sit at one-under.
Spieth’s sloppy finish on Saturday, dropping three shots in the last two holes, had given hope for those chasing him. Having been wayward off the tee in that 73, he’d called his coach, Cameron McCormick, back from Dallas. It was reported that McCormick had left due to having “something planned”. It’s not usual for him to be around on the final day, though. Spieth clearly felt something had come unstuck technically, so he wasn’t about to take any chances.
After their work had been done, Spieth’s last act before striding on to the tee was to hug his parents, Shawn and Chris. Family values are big for Spieth and long may that continue. Kaufman, a 24-year-old playing here for the first time, was a surprise last-round partner for Spieth in the final group. He was bidding to become the first player to make a fairytale start in this event since Fuzzy Zoeller back in 1979. Kaufman had a chance to immediately move level with the leader but couldn’t convert a four-foot birdie chance at the opening hole. He made amends by then making 4 at the long second, but that was matched by Spieth. On in two, he took a long time figuring out the line of a tricky putt but got his reward. In some of the groups up ahead, the third had proved an interesting hole. McIlroy drove the green for birdie, having failed for the second day running to pick up a shot at the previous hole. Johnson put his tee shot over the putting surface and couldn’t get up and down from a tough spot. In the trees off the tee, Kaufman bogeyed it. He then three-putted the fourth. There, Spieth was perilously close to doing what McIlroy had done earlier - finding trouble in bushes on the right of the green. As he’s got a habit of doing, Spieth got up and down, holing from 12 feet.
Almost simultaneously, McIlroy missed from 10 feet for an eagle at the eighth, having just birdied the seventh from close range. The frustration was etched on his face. He knew that an eagle at that time might have sparked something special. The putter made amends as par was saved from seven feet at the ninth. Out in 35 for two-over, the four-time major winner headed into the back nine five off the pace. It had been six until Spieth, having pushed his approach close to the spectator stand, was unable, for once, to rely on that magical short game to get him out of jail.
Another of Spieth’s strengths is that he has a knack of bouncing back from blips. On this occasion, he did so with two birdies in a row. In went an 11-footer for two at the sixth. His approach from 126 yards at the seventh was a thing of beauty. It landed in the perfect spot beyond the flag and trundled back to three feet. His lead was up to three over Willett. Johnson, having repaired a four-putt double-bogey at the fifth with birdies at the sixth, eighth and ninth.
As neither McIlroy, whose bid for a career Grand Slam will have to wait another 12 months, or world No 2 Jason Day, were able to get into the mix, Spieth made it three birdies in a row with a 4 at the eighth. It was set up by a driving iron from the fairway, the same club having already earned its keep in similar fashion at the second.
A par would have been a nice way to finish the front nine. Spieth was now on a roll, though. That putter was starting to work like it did on his debut in 2014, when he finished runner-up, then again last year as he coasted to victory with a record-equalling 18-under total. A tricky 21-footer across the green was judged to perfection. What a run. The hallmark of a champion as he closed in on a second win here and third major in total.
What happened over the next hour left Spieth shell-shocked and opened the door for Willett to savour a second memorable moment in his life after becoming a father for the first time on 30 March. Back-to-back bogeys at the 10th and 11th seemed to rattle the American. The 12th then became his graveyard - not the first to suffer that fate there, of course.
His tee shot was in trouble the moment it left the club. It was pushed a bit, hit the bank at the front of the green and ended up in the water. His next one from the drop zone also got wet. He walked off with a quadruple-bogey 7. In what seemed no time at all, he’d gone from five ahead to three behind Willett. It was the first time in eight rounds that Spieth’s name hadn’t been positioned at the top of the leaderboard in this event.
Willett birdied the 13th before hitting a superb approach to a few feet at the next. Sensing this might be his moment to land that elusive first major, Westwood chipped in from through the back of the 15th to get within a shot of his compatriot and playing partner.
Could Spieth be the comeback kid again? Of course he could. This kid is a fighter. He’ll never throw in the towel, especially here. He got up and down from just off the green to birdie the 13th. He definitely wasn’t finished yet.
Willett, though, now had the bit between his teeth. He kept his nerve to roll in a seven-foot birdie putt at the 16th. Just as impressive - and important - was the par save he made at the 17th after pulling his second shot into a spot from where he wasn’t really expected to get up and down.
Westwood’s challenge was doused when he three-putted the 17th for bogey. With birdies at the 13th and 15th, Johnson was still in with a chance until he ran up a double-bogey 6 at the 17th. Another one to add to his “so close so yet so far” stories.
Willett hit 3-wood at the last. It was a sensible decision as he took Sandy Lyle’s bunker out of the equation. His second was a peach, landing on the right edge and feeding down towards the hole. He was disappointed to leave his 14-foot birdie attempt a couple of feet short. Before confidently knocking in the next one, Willett had taken his sweater off. How appropriate that he was wearing a shade of green underneath.
His closing 67 was flawless. It put him in the clubhouse on five-under 283. All he could do now was wait. Only Spieth could catch him now. He closed the gap to just two shots with a birdie at the 15th. He then knocked his tee shot to 13 feet behind the hole at the 16th. For once, the opportunity was spurned. That was a boost for Willett. So, too, was Spieth then dropping a shot at the 17th after finding a greenside bunker. It was all over. On the phone to his wife Nicole, Willett was hugged by his caddie, Jonathan Smart, for becoming the Masters champion. It had perhaps been written in the stars. Or the number on Smart’s white boiler suit even. No 89 was the same one Jack Nicklaus Jnr wore when he caddied for his dad when he won for the sixth and last time here in 1986 at the age of 46.