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Danny Willett wins Masters as Jordan Spieth falters on back nine

April 10, 2016

AUGUSTA – It was over. And then it wasn’t.

Jordan Spieth took a five-shot lead into the back nine, then lost it all and then some in a sequence of horrors that turned the 80th Masters upside-down. Englishman Danny Willett shot a bogey-free 67 to become the first European to don the green jacket since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999.

“It’s just crazy,” Willett said, speaking for many. “It’s surreal.”

Spieth was vying to become the first back-to-back Masters winner since Tiger Woods in 2001-’02, and seemed to be on cruise control before it all went horribly wrong. After making four straight birdies to go out in 32, he bogeyed the 10th and 11th holes. He still had the lead, but disaster struck at the par-3 12th as he rinsed two balls in the pond and took a quadruple-bogey 7. Willett was suddenly in the driver’s seat.

“Big picture, this one will hurt,” Spieth said. “It will take a while.”

MORE: View the Leaderboard  |  Inside Spieth’s Meltdown

Lee Westwood shot a final-round 69 to finish three back at 2 under, and Spieth signed for a final-round 73 to tie Westwood for second place. Paul Casey (67), Dustin Johnson (71) and J.B. Holmes (68) tied for fourth.

Only six players finished the tournament under par.

The son of a vicar and a math teacher, Willett, 28, is a former English Amateur champion and No. 1-ranked amateur. His wife, Nicole, was due with the couple’s first child last Thursday, and he only committed to play in the tournament after she delivered a son, Zach, early, on March 30.

“Fortunately he listened to my prayers and came early,” Willett said. “It’s just been the most ridiculously awesome—12 days, I guess.”

After three straight days of wind, the weather finally cooperated late Sunday, a day that had a tinge of the bizarre from the beginning.

Shane Lowry, Davis Love III and then Louis Oosthuizen all made aces at the par-3 16th hole, Oosthuizen’s ball glancing off the ball of playing partner J.B. Holmes before rolling in the hole. Matt Kuchar chipped in for birdie on the same hole, hitting his second shot up the slope and letting it trickle down and into the cup much like Tiger Woods in 2005.

Then came Spieth’s collapse.

He said he and his caddie, Michael Greller, agreed he should aim his tee shot over the bunker and not at the pin, but Spieth admitted he couldn’t get himself to do it. “I remember getting over the ball thinking I’m going to go ahead and hit a little cut to the hole,” he said. “And that’s what I did in 2014 and it cost me the tournament then, too.”

It was an uncharacteristic mental hiccup for Spieth, who at a young age has proven he is one of the game’s clearest thinkers under pressure.

“It just kind of stunk to watch it,” said Smylie Kaufman, who played in the final pairing with Spieth and soared to an 81 to finish 29th.

“I’m not really sure what happened on the next shot,” Spieth said of his third shot, from 80 yards after taking a drop. “I just hit it fat.” He took another drop, hit into the back bunker, and he got up and down for 7.

Spieth fought back, making birdies at 13 and 15 to get within two, but missed his downhill, seven-foot birdie try at 16, and bogeyed 17. He bent deeply at the knees in the 18th fairway, head down, his agony apparent.

“Not the face,” he told photographers as he walked off 18, stunned.

The world No. 2 now had two seconds and a win in three Masters starts, but it was little consolation. “I had my B‑minus game tee to green,” he said, “and I made up for it around the greens with my putter. Ultimately you have to have your ‘A’ game every single part, and I just didn’t have those iron swings, as it showed on the back nine.”

Willett was there to “pounce on the opportunity,” as he phrased it.

If fans in America know relatively little about Willett, it’s because he has fought back problems, delaying his full maturation as a golfer.

“I can feel nowadays when it’s not moving right,” he says, and preventive exercises have been enough to get him back on track.

Willett burst onto the scene when he finished third at the WGC-Match Play at Harding Park last year, and won the Dubai Desert Classic for his fourth European Tour title earlier this year. He also tied for third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump Doral. He is a quick study. After finishing 38th in his Masters debut last year, he’s now in for life.

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

The beneficiary of Dustin Johnson’s collapse at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, Spieth was gracious in defeat at Augusta, congratulating Willett on his fine play while helping him slip on the green jacket.

Willett called him “a class act to be able to hold face and stuff as he did,” for this Masters was lost just as much as it was won, if not more.

But not every major can be a coronation, as with Spieth at last year’s Masters and later Jason Day (73, T10) at the PGA. Some are just about keeping your head down and being nowhere near the scene of the accident.

“Them things happen in golf,” Willett said.

Even to Jordan Spieth.