You get eras of legends: For the seven years from 1960-66, Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player passed green jackets among themselves.
And you get stretches of relative commoners: After Nicklaus’ victory in ’66, the next five champions were Gay Brewer, Bob Goalby, George Archer, Billy Casper and Coody. Casper is the one Hall of Famer in that collection.
Your defending Masters champion is trying to find his place in that continuum.
His name is Danny Willett, in case you lost track of that just as Jordan Spieth lost those two balls in Rae’s Creek in 2016.
He was the Brit, then 28, who swooped in when Spieth so dramatically buckled. Shooting a bogey-free 67 on a Masters Sunday, Willett was worthy enough. But the dominant image of that tournament always will be that of Spieth frittering away his five-stroke lead at the turn, washing two balls on No. 12 contrary to everything previously known about him.
Just as the 1968 Masters is the one Roberto De Vicenzo gave away by signing a wrong scorecard, not the one that Goalby won for his only major championship. Lamented Goalby in an Augusta Chronicle article, “I shot 66 in the final round, but you never heard about that.”
Seeking any little twist that will make Willett stand out and be noticed, there is this: He is, most likely, the first Masters champion to partially credit his victory to a trip to the loo. Since there are some locations even the CBS cameras can’t go, that story went mostly untold until recently.
“It’s pretty difficult to go in the trees at Augusta,” Willett joked, when asked about the pit stop coming off 15 green that Sunday. “It was the first bathroom we had seen in a while.
“You know, you look back at it, it was quite nice. Had a couple of minutes of silence in the bathroom with no one there and I said to myself, ‘Look, this is what you practice for. You’ve got to make five good swings and hole a couple putts and see what happens.” It worked, this most basic brand of sports psychology.
Gathering himself after slipping into the green jacket has not been quite so natural for Willett.
“It did knock me back a little bit,” Willett told CNN’s “Living Golf” show. He has had one top-10 finish in his first 13 events after the Masters. His best finish in his three subsequent majors: T-37. Lost all three of his Ryder Cup matches, too.
And had to apologize for his outlandish brother who penned an article back home savaging American golf fans in advance of the Ryder Cup, suggesting that the European team needed to “silence the pudgy, basement-dwelling irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and (weak) beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hot dog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red.” (He was speaking of golf fans, not Masters patrons, of course).
A player known for his confidence, Willett found himself wrestling with the immensity of winning a first major and trying to put that victory in perspective.
“The thing you begin to realize,” he said, “is if you’re gauging every week compared to that week, every week is going to be a failure.”
He obviously was swept up in the whirlwind of the added chores asked of England’s first Masters champion in 20 years. Throw into the mix an Olympics and a Ryder Cup. “Getting the confidence back has been a little bit tricky. We didn’t play great toward the back end of that season, but I think a lot of it was because we didn’t really get the time off in the middle of the year we were hoping for.”
Of the 51 Masters champions since 1934, Willett is one of 16 whose single major title is the Masters. Hardly any shame in “just one” Masters title. Did Neil Armstrong ever feel the need to apologize for just the single moon landing?
It so difficult to employ the word “fluke,” to any Masters champion because that word does them injustice. Still, there are outliers, those who clearly deviate from the normal view of these champions.
Immelman, for one, seemed to come out of the woods like a gate-crasher to claim his Masters. His average finish in his five Masters previous to 2008: 51st. Average finish in the following five: 32nd. The Masters was his second and final PGA Tour victory in 274 events.
Ian Woosnam’s only major was the 1991 Masters, but he’s a Hall of Famer on the strength of his international record. Larry Hogan Mize has his one 1987 Masters title, but is locally revered and remembered for one of the tournament’s great shots (the chip-in from 140 feet off No. 11 in a playoff). These solo Masters champions come in all flavors.
The winner of five events on the European Tour and that one shiny event on this side of the pond, Willett still seeks his niche among the masters of the Masters.
This year, at least, he expresses gratitude for the relatively small shadow he casts.
“I think we might be able to slip under the radar — which would be quite nice — and do our own work again and hopefully let the results take their course,” he said.
For Willett, there is still time to register more than the single blip.