Danny Wil­lett en­tered the 2016 Masters as an un­fan­cied out­sider and an un­known quan­tity to a gallery fix­ated on reign­ing cham­pion Jor­dan Spi­eth. But then, as he ex­ited the 15th green, a funny thing hap­pened. And as he tells John Hug­gan, it changed his wor

Golf World (UK) - - Contents -

A year on from the tour­na­ment that changed his life, the Masters cham­pion takes us back to that spec­tac­u­lar Sun­day.

‘I looked at the leader­board and saw Jor­dan had dropped shots at 10 and 11.

APRIL 4, 2016 “From cloud nine to Au­gusta, Ge­or­gia”

I went to the Masters on cloud nine. My first son had been born a few days ear­lier and I’d spent those days look­ing af­ter him, chang­ing nap­pies and all that be­fore I flew out. The tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter, re­ally. If the birth had been any later, my prepa­ra­tion would have been dis­turbed and cut short. As it turned out, I was able to en­joy my time at home and then fly out feel­ing fresh and with­out any real pres­sure. It was very dif­fer­ent ma­jor prepa­ra­tion!

I left the fam­ily be­hind and flew out on the Mon­day, not re­ally con­cerned with the golf side of things. I’d been play­ing well to that point so I wasn’t go­ing there think­ing I needed to grind on any­thing. My game was al­ready in good shape.

I went over with a good group. I had five or six of my re­ally close pals with me. We were able to do our own thing every day. I went to the course, prac­tised and played, and did the par 3 with Westy [Lee West­wood]. I just had a re­ally nice chilled-out week, but I made sure I did ev­ery­thing I needed to do every day.

I think I was 20 in the world go­ing into the tour­na­ment, so I was off the radar to a lot of peo­ple. Un­less you’re top-five in the world or you’re slapped on bill­boards ev­ery­where, you can go about your busi­ness un­no­ticed. That helped me.

ROUNDS 1 -3 “Slow, steady and still qui­etly in touch”

I played the first round twounder par, then two-over for the sec­ond and level for the third, so level par af­ter three rounds and in a good place. I went no lower than T9 dur­ing the week, yet no one was fo­cus­ing on me even as we went into the fi­nal round. That was amaz­ing but it kept me calm.

I’d played well but it wasn’t easy. The course is tough enough at the best of times, but they try to make it a lit­tle trick­ier dur­ing Masters week. And then you put 20 to 30-mile an hour winds in there and it be­comes just bru­tal. You’ve just got to stand there and com­mit to golf shots and hope that you don’t get too many bad gusts on the wrong holes. I think I was three be­hind go­ing into the fi­nal day – close but just far enough away to not have ev­ery­one watch­ing me. That was good. I’d def­i­nitely have taken that at the start of the week and I ob­vi­ously thought I had a chance.

FI­NAL DAY 1ST-9TH “At least we’re not mov­ing back­wards”

I didn’t have a num­ber in my head for what I needed to shoot in the fi­nal round. I never re­ally do. I just went out there to play some good golf, hope things went my way and see what hap­pened. I was fo­cused on be­ing ag­gres­sive, though. I knew I had an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing and if that came along I wanted to be able to take it. Not many guys get many chances to win ma­jors, I knew that.

I reached the turn two-un­der. We picked up a cou­ple of shots at six and eight. I was feel­ing good be­cause I made a great birdie on eight and a great par on nine. My cad­die, Johnny [Smart], made a cou­ple of great calls. I hit 3-wood off the tee on eight so that we could be ag­gres­sive up the left side. Then I knocked a 5-wood just on the front edge. I had about a 25-footer for ea­gle and just missed it. I ac­tu­ally hit a bad tee-shot on nine up the left, which is never good. But be­cause I hit a fade, I have to take it tight to the trees on the left and that’s never easy. I just clipped one of the branches and it dropped down.

I hooked the next one around the trees, short and right of the green. I hit a re­ally good chip but it ran maybe seven-feet past. The putt had three or four cups of move­ment in it, it was downhill and four o’clock on Sun­day at Au­gusta – the green was prob­a­bly run­ning at 16. But I rolled it in. Johnny and I looked at each other and said, ‘Not bad. At least we’re not mov­ing back­wards.’

By that point I was still three back of Jor­dan but I was fully aware that the back-nine on Sun­day was where ev­ery­thing hap­pened. So I ar­rived on the 10th tee in a great frame of mind.

FI­NAL DAY 10TH-15TH “Was he too far ahead? I didn’t know. Then I heard the groans”

I hit two lovely shots into 10 to about 15 feet but I missed the putt. Then I hit two lovely shots into 11 to about 25 feet but missed that putt as well. I hit a nice shot into 12, too. On paper, that hole should be a piece of cake, but it’s ab­so­lutely bru­tal be­cause the breeze was ev­ery­where. When I got to the tee the wind was down and out of the right. Then when I hit it, the wind just changed. I hit a full wedge from 145 and it pitched just over the bunker on the right and stopped in the fringe. Any fur­ther right and it would have gone in the water. But it shows you how dif­fi­cult that hole can be, I was try­ing to land the ball eight yards past that point – in the mid­dle of the green – try­ing to hit it into a four-yard by four-yard gap. If it is flat­calm it’s fine. If you give me 140 yards and no wind I should be okay. But it is never flat-calm on the 12th at Au­gusta. I’ve played that hole eight times in com­pe­ti­tion and the wind can do any­thing and the mar­gin for er­ror is tiny. But I es­caped un­scathed with a par and af­ter 12 I was still two-un­der. [Note: by now, a birdie on the 8th had stretched Spi­eth’s lead to four strokes.]

I hit a great drive up 13 and a 5-iron onto the green. Two putts for birdie, three-un­der. An­other great drive up 14, then a wedge to about three feet and rolled it in and all of sud­den I’m fou­run­der par and play­ing some good golf. I hadn’t seen a leader­board since the 13th. Jor­dan had just birdied eight and nine. But I think I was in sec­ond.

Did I think he was too far ahead? I didn’t know. I was just try­ing to keep press­ing, even know­ing he had a few shots in hand. You just never know. When I birdied 14, I thought that an­other on 15 might make him think a lit­tle, but then my drive on 15 was too straight so I couldn’t go for the green. I chipped it out, wedged on to about 12 feet and missed.

Westy, of course, chipped in there for ea­gle to get him to three-un­der. I was at four with the birdie putt to come. Be­fore I hit it, I looked at the board and in the time since I had last seen one, Jor­dan had dropped shots at 10 and 11. So I knew I had a putt to tie him on 5-un­der­par. All of a sud­den, the gap was all but gone. Even when I missed, I knew I had ev­ery­thing to play for. Happy days!

I knew I had a great chance be­cause ab­so­lutely any­thing is pos­si­ble on that course with the water in play. It can be a bru­tal stretch of golf. As Johnny put the flag in at 15 he said to me, ‘Good try, that, pal.’ Then, as I walked off the green, I heard the grunts and the groans from be­hind and re­alised that ev­ery­thing had changed again.

Then, on 15, I heard the groans from back on 12. That’s when I knew’

‘Jor­dan came up and con­grat­u­lated me on the win. He was very classy’

FI­NAL DAY 16TH-18TH “I re­alised I was out in front and my hands just started shak­ing”

When I saw Jor­dan had gone from five-un­der to two-un­der, I just laughed. I thought they were tak­ing the piss and had got the num­bers wrong. But they hadn’t. I had guys shout­ing from the gallery, ‘Look at the board, you’re lead­ing the Masters!’

Walk­ing off the green the re­al­i­sa­tion hit me. I was lead­ing and Westy was only one back. I was like, ‘F***!’

I needed a pee, so I ran through the crowd into the lit­tle toi­let be­hind the 16th tee. I was in there 30 sec­onds. My heart was pump­ing, my heart was rac­ing and I re­mem­ber think­ing ‘This is what I prac­tise for. I’m lead­ing the Masters! It was prob­a­bly a good time to have some time to my­self. I was where I wanted to be. Not in the toi­let, but in the lead [laughs]. I had been very good men­tally that week be­cause I was in such a good place in my life. So I broke it down as sim­ply as pos­si­ble. What did I have to do? Three holes left, five good swings, hope­fully make some putts. If I do that, let’s see what hap­pens. We knew Jor­dan could still make birdies though, so I wanted at least one more birdie.

The 16th tee was about 176 yards, 8-iron, and I hit it per­fect. Think­ing about it now gives me goose­bumps. I left my­self a putt eight feet up­hill, right-to-left – about as easy a putt as you can have on that green. All I was fo­cused on was start­ing it on line, keep­ing my head down and mak­ing that birdie.

I had a par on 17, with a chip from a very tight lie. My hands were shak­ing as I played that shot. I was think­ing, ‘F**k, I’m lead­ing’. But I pulled it off.

Then on 18 I had to step off the tee twice be­cause peo­ple were run­ning about. I parred that to fin­ish five-un­der and I was so proud. I’d played the back-nine with­out any real or big mis­takes. Ob­vi­ously I didn’t know if it would be enough be­cause Jor­dan still had four holes to do some­thing, and he’d have chances on 15 and 16. So I as­sumed noth­ing.

ALL JUST A BLUR “When Jor­dan missed on 18, my whole world just went crazy”

We sat in with the scor­ers, just watch­ing and wait­ing. I don’t think Jor­dan birdied 15 but he hit a great shot into 16. He was left with a tough putt, rapid and with a lot of swing. He must have knocked it four feet past. He saved par but he had to make birdies on 17 and 18 to force a play-off.

I’m on the phone to Nic back home at this point, watch­ing as he hit a good drive on 17. Then, as soon as his sec­ond shot was in the air, I’m think­ing it’s look­ing short. And it was as it turned out. I still thought he could ‘box it’ from where he was but when he didn’t make it, I knew he ef­fec­tively had to hole his sec­ond shot on 18 to force a play-off.

When he missed it just went crazy. Johnny came run­ning in and jumped on me. Chubby was there. My fa­ther-in-law was there. Then the com­mit­tee mem­bers ap­peared to tell me what I had to do.

The next four hours are a com­plete blur. What I re­mem­ber was be­ing taken into the But­ler Cabin, telling them my jacket size and then one just sud­denly ap­pear­ing. They have the lit­tle in­ti­mate thing in there with the last win­ner, your­self, the low am­a­teur, chair­man Payne and [CBS an­nouncer] Jim Nantz. It’s very for­mal. And a bit sur­real. I re­mem­ber sit­ting there think­ing, ‘What the f*** just hap­pened?’

I felt slightly sorry for Jor­dan. Ob­vi­ously, as the pre­vi­ous cham­pion he had to be in there, and that was tough, but he was awe­some. He came up straight away, shook my hand and said, ‘Well played.’ I know there was hurt there for him. But he was re­ally classy.

A LIFE CHANGER “That day changed my life for­ever”

Af­ter that, it all went men­tal. When I got back to Eng­land it was ab­so­lutely crazy. I was sup­posed to have five weeks off with Nic and the baby, but I was pulled from pil­lar to post. Ev­ery­body wanted to talk to me about it. We had no pri­vacy and it be­came five weeks of cel­e­brat­ing and me­dia stuff. I went to Wim­ble­don and wore the jacket in the Royal Box, stuff like that. It was great but it was crazy and life chang­ing. Those four rounds of golf – and that back nine in par­tic­u­lar – changed ev­ery­thing.

Cad­die Johnny Smart, pic­tured here be­fore a birdie on 13, had a key role,

Pres­sure shot: Wil­lett drives down the 18th know­ing he leads the Masters.

The morn­ing af­ter the night be­fore: Wil­lett re­lives his vic­tory.

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