A Will-Ing Win
On Wednesday’s par-3 contest at the 2016 Masters no fewer than 9 players made a hole-in-one in the only competition that nobody wants to win. That is because no player who has ever won the par-3 event has gone on to win the main event. Jimmy Walker set a scoring record for the par-3, with an amazing 8-under par, 19, to effectively rule himself out of contention for the next four days.
After Thursday’s opening round there was a familiar name on top of the leaderboard, defending Champion, Jordan Spieth. World #2, Spieth shot a flawless 6-under par, 66 in difficult, windy conditions (with gusts of over 25 mph) to take a two stroke lead over the field. Spieth’s bogey-free opening salvo was the fifth consecutive round that he held the outright lead at The Masters, the first time a player has accomplished that in the 80 years of the event.
World #1 and pre-tournament favorite, Jason Day, was playing superbly heading into the 15th hole at 5-under par before playing his next 3 holes in 5-over to erase all the great early work of his round and finish at even par for the day.
World #3 and the third member of the new “Big 3”, Rory McIlroy, began with a 2-under par 70 four shots behind Spieth.
Spieth birdied two of his first three holes as he began play on Friday to widen his lead to 5 shots, but this would not immediately be the runaway that was 2015. By now, the greens had dried out from the evening rains that soaked the course on Wednesday night and the pins were in much more difficult positions than the day before. Those two elements combined with even gustier winds made Augusta treacherous.
Spieth surrendered the two early strokes he gained with a careless 4-putt double bogey on the 4th hole, which would be the opening that the field needed to close the gap.
Windswept, and exhausted, the players were routinely bested by Augusta National on a day in which only 4 players bested par. That quartet included, McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Daniel Berger and Troy Merit who each fashioned 1-under par, 71’s.
Spieth ended the day with a 2-over par, 74, giving him a 1 shot cushion over McIlroy at 4-under for the first two days, extending his record of consecutive days with the outright lead to six.
Johnson, Berger and Merit were in a large group of players at even par, while Day shot a 1-over par 73, 5 shots from Spieth. Heading into the 3rd round, 41 players were within 7 shots of the lead.
Nonetheless, golf had its first marquee weekend pairing of 2016, as two of the Big 3, Spieth and McIlroy would play together in Saturday’s final two-some.
Saturday’s conditions were the most difficult of the week with the winds gusting over 30 mph again and the greens becoming even firmer and faster. The average score had increased each day by a stroke from 74 on Day 1, to a just under 76 on Day 3.
An unheralded 24-year old rookie on the PGA Tour, Smylie Kaufman, upstaged all the stars and crafted a 3-under par, 69, that was “moving day’s” best score. Kaufman won last fall at the Las Vegas Open to gain entry into the Masters in only his second start as a member of the Tour. The likeable Alabaman still lives at home with his parents (his peers point this out to him regularly) and drives a 2008 Nissan Moreno. Kaufman would play in the final pairing in Sunday’s final round.
McIlroy struggled with his game on Saturday and shot a 5-over par, 77, which was the first time in his last 80 rounds in the Majors that he did not make a single birdie.
For Spieth, it began to seem like 2015 all over again as he played the first 16 holes in 2-under par, commanding a 4-shot lead over the field at 6-under par for the tournament. And that’s when things got interesting. Spieth stumbled home with a bogey, double-bogey on the last two holes, good enough to still lead, but now only by a single shot at 3-under par.
Day played himself back into contention with a hard fought, 71, putting him in a tie for 5th at even par, with Dustin Johnson who recorded the same 1-under score. Joining Day and Johnson at even par was rising English star, Danny Willett, who has quietly climbed to become the 12th ranked player in the world.
24-year old Japanese star, Hideki Matsuyama, carded an even par, 72 to be tied for 3rd place at 1-under with the most unlikely other contender, Bernhard Langer.
The 58 year old German who won The Masters in 1985 and 1993 shot an amazing, 2-under par 70 to vault into contention. Jordan Spieth was not even born when Langer won his second Green Jacket. Just as remarkable is that with the advent of the Anchoring ban that went into effect on January 1st, Langer had to come up with a new way to putt (he had been anchoring for years). For the fourth time in his career, http://www.birdgolf.com/tiger-woods-whats-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/, the resilient Bavarian came up with a new way to do the most important task in golf. Langer still uses a long putter, but no longer anchors the end of the club into his chest.
Sunday’s stage was set with a cast that included both the most likely and unlikely of players.
The best weather conditions of the week greeted the players as Sunday’s final round began but as the front 9 unfolded none of Spieth’s immediate challengers were about to mount an early assault on his lead.
Langer, Day and McIlroy would not be part of Sunday’s portrait.
After a bogey on the par-4, 5th hole, Spieth reeled off four consecutive birdies in a sensational stretch of golf that saw his lead climb to 5 shots as he started his back 9.
But this was Sunday on the back-9 at Augusta and things can change very quickly. And they did.
As Willett made consecutive birdies on the 13th and 14th to get to 4-under par, Spieth was imploding. The usually steel nerved Texan made back to back bogies on the 10th and 11th holes before a disastrous quadruple-bogey 7 on the par-3 12th plummeted him back to 1-under and 3 behind Willett.
In the space of 50 minutes, there had been an 8 shot swing in the pendulum that swerves in the Georgia pines.
Willett made par-4 on his closing two holes to record a 5-under par 67 and finish at that number for the tournament.
Showing the heart and resolve of a true champion, Spieth made birdie-4’s on both the 13th and 15th holes to get back to 3-under and two behind Willett. Very few other players would have had the fortitude to fight back as resiliently as Spieth did but ultimately, history would record that he tied for 2nd with Lee Westwood at 2-under and 3 behind Willett.
Willett was almost a non-participant in this year’s Masters because his wife Nicole was due to give birth to their first child today (and if that had been the case Willett would have been there for that). Displaying great timing, Zachary James arrived on March 30 so his Dad was able to play in his second Masters.
The 28-year old Willett becomes the second Englishman to wear the Green Jacket joining Nick Faldo who won in 1989, 1990 and 1996. He has won four times on the European Tour and finished 2015 as the runner-up in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai to McIlroy.
Make no mistake, this was a heroic triumph by Willett, but it witnessed the tragic Herculean courage that is Spieth. Such is golf.
Such is the Game’s greatest event.