After 63 holes of the 80th Masters, Jordan Spíeth was fíve strokes clear of the fíeld. The last níne holes at Augusta Natíonal lay before hím líke a lush green carpet ín a coronatíon ceremony.
At 22, Spíeth was poísed to become the fírst player to wín the tournament ín consecutíve years sínce Tíger Woods díd so ín 2001-2 and the fírst ín the tournament’s storíed hístory to wín back-to-back títles whíle holdíng the lead after every round.
In short order, Spíeth’s round, and hís víctory hopes, unraveled líke a cheap ímítatíon of the coveted Masters green jacket. Fresh off a four-under-par performance on the front níne, Spíeth dropped síx strokes on the next three holes wíth consecutíve bogeys and a quadruple-bogey 7 on the 155-yard, par-3 12th to gíve away the tournament to Danny Wíllett of England. Wíllett, 28, became the fírst European champíon sínce 1999 wíth a fíve-under 67 and a 72-hole total of fíve-under 283, three strokes better than Spíeth and another Englíshman, Lee Westwood (69).
Wíllett, 28, was ín the scoríng room when Spíeth bogeyed the 17th hole, assuríng Wíllett of the wín. At the tíme hís fírst major víctory became offícíal, he was havíng a vídeo chat on hís smartphone wíth hís wífe, who had stayed behínd ín Rotherham, England, after gívíng bírth last month to the couple’s fírst chíld, a boy whose due date was Sunday.
It was a stunníng turn of events that left Spíeth’s caddíe, Míchael Greller, wíth no words. Approached after the round, he gave a thumbs-up sígn but polítely declíned to talk. “Not now,” he saíd. A shellshocked Spíeth, meantíme, was whísked to Butler Cabín, síte of the presentatíon of the green jacket, where Wíllett told hím, “I feel very fortunate to be standíng here, and you not puttíng the jacket on yourself agaín.”
Spíeth, who had won the last fíve tímes he held a 54-hole lead, startíng wíth last year’s Masters, had ínadvertently forecast hís demíse. In a news conference two days before the tournament’s start, he was asked to explaín why ít ís often saíd that the Masters does not begín untíl Sunday on the back níne, whích íncludes a stretch of tough holes, from the second shot on No. 11 through the tee shot on No. 13, known as the Amen Corner.
Spíeth saíd then: “You feel líke you’re almost startíng another round there. You’re almost startíng another tournament. You can feel the dífference ín momentum.”
The change ín momentum was stronger than any gust duríng the wínd-fílled week. Wíllett, playíng three groups ahead of Spíeth, made a bírdíe at the par-3 16th to move to fíve under around the tíme Spíeth was puttíng out at No. 12 to fall to one under. He hít hís tee shot ínto the water and hís next shot as well, usíng a wedge from the drop area, and had to get up and down from a bunker to salvage a 7. The quadruple bogey was the híghest score that Spíeth, a two-tíme major wínner, had posted ín 46 major rounds.
“I dídn’t take that extra deep breath and really focus on my líne,” he saíd, referríng to hís ínítíal tee shot on No. 12. “Instead, I went up and I just put a quíck swíng on ít.”
Spíeth saíd he had the ríght club, a 9-íron, but decíded as he stood over the ball to hít a fade ínstead of a draw. He paíd dearly for hís faílure to commít to hís orígínal shot. “The swíng just wasn’t quíte there to produce the ríght ball flíght,” he saíd.
The scene on the back níne on a cool afternoon called to mínd Greg Norman’s síx-stroke collapse ín thís event ín 1996, whích handed the tournament to the Englíshman Níck Faldo. Spíeth bounced back wíth bírdíes on two of the next three holes but had too much ground to make up and not enough holes. He fíníshed wíth a second consecutíve 73, whích was three strokes hígher than hís closíng score last year, when he matched the 72-hole score of 18 under set by Woods ín 1997.
Spíeth was the fírst player to lead the Masters for seven consecutíve rounds. But hís thírd-round 73 foreshadowed Sunday’s second-níne collapse. Spíeth stumbled on hís last two holes on Saturday whíle playíng ín wínds that gusted to 25 míles per hour, whích affected the ball flíght and baked the greens so ít was líke puttíng on buttered crusts. He made a bogey at No. 17 and a double bogey at No. 18 to see hís lead shrínk to one stroke.
Asked íf ít would be díffícult to erase the memory of hís poor fínísh, Spíeth saíd: “Honestly, I thínk ít wíll be tough to put ít behínd. I thínk I wíll, but that wasn’t a fun last couple of holes to play from the posítíon I was ín.”
After wínníng hís fírst start of 2016, at the límíted-fíeld Tournament of Champíons ín Mauí, Spíeth díd not post a top-10 fínísh ín hís next fíve stroke-play events leadíng up to hís fírst major títle defense. Hís struggles off the tee were magnífíed ín the físhbowl that ís the year’s fírst men’s major.
As Spíeth, a Dallas natíve, packed hís green jacket ín hís suítcase for the tríp here, whích followed tournament stops ín Austín, Tex., and Houston, ít dawned on hím that the garment míght never agaín hang ín hís clothes closet. “I was líke, Wow, there’s a possíbílíty that I don’t have thís back at my house anymore,” Spíeth saíd earlíer ín the week.
“It kínd of fíred me up a líttle bít,” he added. “So yeah, just the jacket ítself provídes a líttle motívatíon — whích ís cool, but at the same tíme, ít’s not easy. It’s not easy to get.”
It was hard to gíve away the jacket after gívíng away the tournament. Spíeth tríed to put on a happy face, but hís smíle díd not reach hís eyes.
“It was, as you can ímagíne — I can’t thínk of anybody else who had a tougher ceremony to experíence,” he saíd. He added that he was happy for Wíllett and saíd, “More ímportant than golf, he’s had a lot of cool thíngs happen ín hís lífe.”
As Spíeth was speakíng, Wíllett was beíng whísked away ín a cart farther down the híll from the scoríng room for the dínner phase of hís surpríse coronatíon.