Nicole Willett’s life was linked with The Masters from day one. She was born, after all, around the time Sandy Lyle was hitting his majestic 7-iron out of a bunker to claim his Green Jacket in 1988. Twenty-eight years on, the season’s opening major provided another significant day in her life. She can feel mighty proud of her husband, Danny, for emulating Lyle’s feat at Augusta National.
Willett’s played on the same Walker Cup team as Rory McIlroy at Royal County Down, where the triumphant United States side included another future major winner, 2012 US Open champion Webb Simpson, as well as Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Billy Horschel, Chris Kirk and Jamie Lovemark. His star has risen much more slowly than some of them, but, in fairness, the Yorkshireman was held back early in his professional career. He has now landed four good wins in the last 18 months, delivering proof that the 28-year-old vicar’s son from Sheffield had, indeed, taken his game to a new level. There is a real sense of him being a cool customer, too. That was confirmed to the world as he capitalised on Jordan Spieth’s Amen Corner nightmare here on Sunday.
“It’s just crazy, just surreal,” admitted Willett as he savoured becoming the second European (after Jose Maria Olazabal) to have a Green Jacket slipped on his shoulders since the only other Englishman – three-time champion Nick Faldo. “I’ve won a couple of golf tournaments around the world, but this is just a different league. It’s a major. It’s the Masters.”
If ever a sporting triumph was written in the stars, then surely it was this one. Nicole had been due to give birth to the couple’s first son on the day of the final round. He’d not have played if that had been the case. Becoming breached, though, meant baby Zachariah came into the world on 30 March. In addition, Willett’s caddie, Jonathan Smart, had number 89 on his white boiler suit. It was the same one Jack Nicklaus Jnr had when caddying for his father as he became the event’s oldest winner at 46 exactly 30 years earlier.
“I’m not quite sure which is better, this day or last Tuesday,” said Willett, smiling, as he reflected on the two life-changing moments. “They are very, very, very close.” His personality shone through when an American journalist asked a question about his wife only to get her name wrong. “Who’s Charlotte?” he replied, laughing, then put a finger to his lips and whispered: “Ssshhh”.
By the sounds of things, Nicole is a rock in his life. She was there to support him as he battled to make the breakthrough, which only came in 2012. “When I first met Nic, I was injured badly with my back and I was taking a lot of time off, and she thought it was all rosy me being at home for six months a year,” said the new world No 9. “She’s been through thick and thin, long practice days, being grumpy when things aren’t going your way. She’s the only one who truly knows how hard I’ve worked over the last few years to come to this point.”
Willett is determined to keep his feet on the ground. Dad duties will help in that respect. “It’s all good and well practising for 12 hours a day, but I don’t think that’s going to get you many Brownie points if you’ve got to do the dishes, change the little one’s nappy and do other things like that,” he said. “Yes, I’m trying to be a great golfer, but I’m also trying to be a great person, husband and father as well.”
Let’s hope Willett gets the credit he deserves for this win. Sure, Spieth threw it away. He was freewheeling into the record books after opening up a five-shot lead with nine to play. He will be haunted for 12 months by the catastrophic quadruple-bogey 7 at the 12th that effectively cost him his chances of joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Faldo as the only players to win this event back-to-back. The winner played brilliantly, though, on the last day. Just as Spieth was having his disaster, Willett stuck his tee shot to seven feet at the 16th. His chip from the side of the 17th green was sublime. He played the last in copybook style. It was a phenomenal performance.
“I was fantastic mentally this week, going through my processes and pulling the shot off,” he said. “Luckily, we dropped on some really good numbers today. This golf course is tough enough if you’re trying to hit shots in between to firm greens. But we dropped in some good numbers down the stretch which allowed us to be really aggressive and hit the shots.
“Jordan obviously had a terrible run, which basically put it right back in anyone’s hands. (On the 16th tee at the time), I actually heard everyone grunting and moaning as they changed the scoreboard (following Spieth’s 7). I thought it was a little joke and was waiting for someone to put a 7 back up there. Fortunately, I was able to seize the opportunity and knock it in close on 16.”