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Willett grabs green jacket after Spieth falters

AUGUSTA, Ga. – After 63 holes of the 80th Masters, Jordan Spieth was five strokes clear of the field. The last nine holes at Augusta National lay before him like a lush green carpet in a coronation ceremony.

At 22, Spieth was poised to become the first player to win the tournament in consecutive years since Tiger Woods did so in 2002 and the first in the tournament’s storied history to win back-to-back titles while holding the lead after every round.

In short order, Spieth’s round, and his victory hopes, unraveled like a cheap imitation of the coveted Masters green jacket. Fresh off a 4-under performance on the front nine, Spieth dropped six strokes on the next three holes with consecutive bogeys and a quadruple-bogey seven on the 155-yard, par-3 12th to give away the tournament to Danny Willett of England. Willett, 28, closed with a 5-under 67 for a three-stroke victory, at 5-under 283, over Spieth and another Englishman, Lee Westwood (69).

Willett, 28, was in the scoring room when Spieth bogeyed the 17th hole, assuring Willett of the win. At the time his first major victory became official, he was having a video chat on his smartphone with his wife, who had stayed behind in Rotherham, England, after giving birth last month to the couple’s first child, a boy whose due date was Sunday.

It was a stunning turn of events that left Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, speechless. Approached after the round, he gave a thumbs-up sign but politely declined to talk. “Not now,” he said. Spieth was whisked to Butler Cabin, site of the presentation of the green jacket.

Spieth, who had won the last five times he held a 54-hole lead, starting with last year’s Masters, had unintentionally forecast his demise. In his news conference two days before the tournament’s start, he was asked to explain why it is often said that the Masters does not begin until Sunday on the back nine, which includes a stretch of tough holes, from the second shot on No. 11 through the tee shot on 13, known as the Amen Corner.

Spieth said then: “You feel like you’re almost starting another round there. You’re almost starting another tournament. You can feel the difference in momentum.”

The change in momentum was stronger than any gust during the wind-filled week. Willett, playing three groups ahead of Spieth, carded a birdie at the par-3 16th to move to five under. Spieth was putting out at 12 to fall to 1 under after hitting his tee shot and his next shot in the water hazard known as Rae’s Creek, adding two penalty strokes to his score on the hole. The quadruple bogey was the highest score that Spieth, a two-time major winner, has posted in 46 major rounds.

It came after Spieth had nearly pulled off one of his signature escapes on the 11th. After his drive landed in pine needles to the right of the fairway, he chipped out and then hit an aggressive third shot to the par 4, aiming for the pin on the left side of the green. His ball landed roughly 8 feet from the pin, eliciting a roar that shook the pines. That distance is usually automatic for Spieth, but his par attempt slid past the hole, after which it grew so silent that you could hear the pine needles drop.

On the 13th hole, Spieth said he told Greller, “Buddy, it seems like we’re collapsing.” It was Spieth’s way of letting Greller know he needed all the encouragement that Greller, a former elementary school math and science teacher, could muster. Greller was up to the task, talking Spieth through his bounce-back birdie at 13. But there were no magic words, or shots, left in the pair’s arsenal.

The scene on the back nine on a cool afternoon called to mind Greg Norman’s six-stroke collapse in this event in 1996, which handed the tournament to the Englishman Nick Faldo. Spieth bounced back with birdies on two of the next three holes but had too much ground to make up and not enough holes. He finished with a second consecutive 73, which was three strokes higher than his closing score last year, when he matched the 72-hole score of 18 under set by Woods in 1997.

Spieth was the first player to lead the Masters for seven consecutive rounds. But his third-round 73 foreshadowed Sunday’s second-nine collapse. Spieth stumbled on his last two holes on Saturday while playing in winds that gusted to 25 mph, which affected the ball flight and baked the greens so it was like putting on buttered crusts. He made a bogey at No. 17 and a double bogey at 18 to see his lead shrink to one stroke.

Asked if it would be difficult to erase the memory of his poor finish, Spieth said: “Honestly, I think it will be tough to put it behind. I think I will, but that wasn’t a fun last couple of holes to play from the position I was in.”

After winning his first start of 2016, at the limited-field Tournament of Champions in Maui, Spieth did not post a top-10 finish in his next five stroke-play events leading up to his first major title defense. His struggles off the tee were magnified in the fishbowl that is the year’s first men’s major.

As Spieth, a Dallas native, packed his green jacket in his suitcase for the trip here, which followed tournament stops in Austin, Texas, and Houston, it dawned on him that the garment might never again hang in his clothes closet. “I was like, Wow, there’s a possibility that I don’t have this back at my house anymore,” Spieth said earlier in the week.

“It kind of fired me up a little bit,” he added. “So yeah, just the jacket itself provides a little motivation – which is cool, but at the same time, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to get.”

It was hard to give away the jacket after giving away the tournament. Spieth tried to put on a happy face, but his smile did not reach his eyes.

“It was, as you can imagine – I can’t think of anybody else who had a tougher ceremony to experience,” he said. He added that he was happy for Willett and said, “More important than golf, he’s had a lot of cool things happen in his life.”

As Spieth was speaking, Willett was being whisked away in a cart farther down the hill from the scoring room for the dinner phase of his surprise coronation.