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
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.