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Willett Proves Himself a True Golfing Warrior

13/04/2016 10:58

Twenty years ago an Englishman shot 67 to stun the world and win the Masters, beating a great champion who suffered a brutal and shocking collapse.

Nick Faldo's extraordinary victory over Greg Norman, who was, famously, six shots clear going into the final round, is embedded into sporting folklore. Those who saw it unfold will never forget those iconic images of the ultimate nearly-man somehow contriving to snatch Major heartbreak from the jaws of golfing glory.

However it wasn't until the 12th that the wheels really came off for the Great White Shark, his seven iron finding water on golf's most famous par three.

Norman's tee shot just drifted too far right and rebounded off the bank. Two decades later Jordan Spieth's approach landed in virtually the same place before disappearing into the golfing abyss. That two great players could be bitten so hard in the snakepit that is Sunday at Augusta is testament to the pressure this remarkable event brings to bear. Great players have talked about the first tee shot at The Ryder Cup as the ultimate in knee tremblers but for sustained, career-threatening, mentally-draining pressure nothing eclipses leading the race for the Green Jacket during the final nine holes.

So many have been caught out before and no one would have been surprised had Danny Willett joined the club. Convention dictates that you have to go close in a Major before you can win one - especially at The Masters - and there was the Sheffield-based player, suddenly leading with just a handful of holes to go, a fact he became aware of while making his way to the 16th tee. Two decades earlier Norman's challenge was effectively ended in the water by the side of the iconic short hole. Ten years before that Nicklaus stiffed his approach as part of his charge to perhaps the most famous victory in golf. It is a hole that has decided so many Masters and again would play a pivotal role.

So who would it be... Nicklaus or Norman? With a one-shot lead Willett somehow cleared his mind - it had to be raging with a mixture of emotions - and pinged a short iron to six feet before holing the putt to reach five under. His tee shot was virtually identical in line and distance to Jack's 30 years earlier and in among the mayhem its significance was slightly lost. However, after the dust has settled, the shot will be elevated to the status it deserves. It was the Englishman's first real opportunity to win a Major and my how he grabbed it with both hands. It's pressure you can not imagine or prepare yourself for until it happens. Most painfully wilt while a select few revel in the pressure cooker and Willett's ability to rise to the occasion puts him a select band of special golfers.

In contrast his playing partner Lee Westwood, suddenly in second after chipping in for eagle, has become synonymous with just falling short on Major Sunday and once again could not make it over the final hurdle. His tee shot at 16 finished woefully short before three putting for a bogey. The scars of so many close calls proved too much for the Ryder Cup veteran and this was always going to be his best hope of breaking his Major duck - sneaking up on the outside in the final furlong - but still he could not maintain the level required for just a few more shots.

It was sad as it was inevitable, like the forgotten man fighting his way into contention but not for long enough to become part of the narrative. The 2016 Masters will be the story of how Spieth inexplicably imploded on 12 and the brilliant 67 from the unlikely hero from across the pond. However the 'plucky underdog' moniker does not do Willett justice.

His gradual improvement over the last three years has not been lost on those who follow the game closely. He finished second in the Race to Dubai last year and had already won once before in 2016. In the last 18 months he has steadily improved but critically has proved himself a man of steel by making it count when working his way into contention. There was one big let down - he finished with a 76 at the Alfred Dunhill Championship in December 2014 - but even then he was possibly trying too hard to catch leader and eventual winner Branden Grace, who had spreadeagled the field with an opening 62 and then followed it up with a 66.

Since then the former world amateur number one has proven his ability to stay the course and won in Switzerland and also recorded two third placed finishes in WGC events, including a stunning 62 in China. He pushed Rory McIlroy all the way before just missing out on the European Order of Merit crown and the Masters was his 18th consecutive event without missing the cut.

Eight years after turning pro, the hyperactive Yorkshireman has realised the potential many who followed his glittering amateur career believed he had. He was always a bit special... super confident, had a glint in his eye and a birdie machine who won things.

If he can continue to thrive in the spotlight he can provide yet more enthralling highlights like the nerveless chip on 17 and, of course, that brilliant tee shot a hole earlier.

Nick Faldo was unquestionably England's greatest golfer; a magnificent contender who invariably won when he had the chance. Willett is a very different character: A bundle of energy with flair and an engaging smile. He could be a superstar if his bad back holds out for a decade or more. If it doesn't he has already joined a very special club; he is a Master, a golfing warrior whose efforts will be remembered long after he has swung a golf club for the last time.

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