England's Danny Willett reigns supreme at Augusta
Two steps forward, one step back - it’s a frustrating way of making progress, but sometimes it’s invaluable. Just ask 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett.
Last July the Englishman was lying second at the halfway stage of The Open and bang in contention for a first major championship victory. Alas, it didn’t quite happen that week: the putter went cold and he slipped back into a tie for sixth.
But just how invaluable was that experience when he found himself at the top of the leaderboard late on Sunday at Augusta National?
Consider this: Willett played alongside Zach Johnson in the final round at St Andrews. In other words he had the best seat in the house as the American stormed through the field and lifted the Claret Jug.
“Being in contention,” Willett said afterwards, “being in the last few groups, it gave me a lot of positives. Playing with Zach, it means I can look back and see how he won it, what he did and what he didn’t do. So much stuff that I can learn from.”
Did Willett learn a lesson? Did he ever. His performance in the final round at Augusta National was straight from the textbook. He hunted the distant leader Jordan Spieth and then, when the American faltered, Willett heeded the lesson of St Andrews: he didn’t take a step backwards. He had watched Johnson pounce, now he followed suit.
Will more major success come Willett’s way, and might it come at The Open this July? Last year’s near miss proves he can play links golf, as does his T15 at Muirfield in 2013, when he improved his position on the leaderboard with every round played.
How about the man he played the final round with at Augusta? Unlike Willett, Lee Westwood faltered when the opportunity arose on the back nine, but if the veteran Englishman takes up the baton of inspiration perhaps he can improve on his fourth placed finish at Royal Troon in 2004.
And what of the world’s top three? They share more than top billing, in more ways than one. Each left Augusta National rueing what-ifs and maybes, and each has unfinished business with The Open from last year.
Jordan Spieth will clearly be hurting in the aftermath of his errors around Amen Corner, but if his short career has proved anything it is his resilience in the wake of mistakes. Having made his biggest errors so far, will he bounce back even higher?
If he needs any more motivation - and it’s unlikely he does - then his arrival in Scotland will remind him that he fell just one shot shy of the play-off 12 months ago when chasing a third major win for the year. That hurt.
Rory McIlroy exited Augusta National unsatisfied by a week that was damaged by inconsistency. He has three months to revive his form ahead of his return to The Open after missing 2015 with the injury he picked up playing five-a-side football.
Unable to defend his 2014 Champion Golfer of the Year title, the Northern Irishman will be itching to re-establish himself as a links golfer of the highest order.
Jason Day arrived at The Masters as the new world number one and fresh from two victories. His preparation could hardly have been better and yet he found himself stymied by poor scoring on the back nine at Augusta.
Day departed St Andrews last year a frustrated man because, just like Spieth, he was one shot out of the play-off. It hurt him every bit as much as it pained the American.
But the final thought should return to the newest owner of a green jacket because this has been a very special fortnight for Danny Willett - not only the Masters champion, but also a father for the first time. And the name he and wife Nicole chose for their new baby boy? They called him Zach.