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The puzzling decline of two champions

Over the weekend, an enjoyable documentary made its way into the public eye titled “When Danny won the Masters”.

It profiled Danny Willett’s early days practising and playing at Birley Wood Golf Club in Sheffield, surroundings suitably grey and grim as you might expect. The son of a vicar made steady progress during his developmental years, although his former coaches seemed to initially imply that he was destined more for life as a journeyman pro rather than world beater.

A first win in 2012 underlined his class though, and a tremendous 2015 season (including a win at the Nedbank Golf Challenge) set him on a collision course with glory at the 2016 Masters.

Or did it?

His wife Nicole was due to give birth to their first child that spring, and the expected due date was none other than Masters Sunday. The Englishman had written off that particular period in advance, but when the baby arrived early, he reconsidered. After confirming that all was okay with his new family, he decided to book a late ticket to Atlanta, and was the last of the Masters field to head up Magnolia Lane and arrive at Augusta. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet that week was as much about Willett’s glory as it was another man’s pain. The only thing Jordan Spieth’s road to Augusta 2016 had in common with Willett’s was that he too had had a tremendous 2015, although the Texan’s was on a different scale, having won two majors (including the Masters), and coming ever-so close to victory in the other two.

Spieth’s unflappability, X-factor and obvious potential were earning him comparisons to the greatest of the greats. And when, after topping the leaderboard on days one, two and three, he stormed into a five-stroke lead with nine holes to play, any betting person would have put their house on him getting the job done.

But there was something different about the defending champion that week. Yes, putting had always been his strength. But it became increasingly clear that it was papering over some severe and previously unseen cracks elsewhere in his game. His ball striking was actually poor – that’s how good his putting was. So, as galling as his meltdown at the 12th hole was, which came after bogeys at 10 and 11, it wasn’t altogether surprising.

Fascinatingly, Spieth’s travails that day proved to be more than just a blip, and he was largely anonymous for the remainder of 2016, not to mention a peripheral figure in the victorious US Ryder Cup team last October.

There have been signs of the old Spieth in 2017, and he broke his win drought at Pebble Beach in February. But still nothing like the wonder kid who wowed us so in the two years prior to last year’s Masters. The fact that he missed the cut at the Shell Houston Open last week – a shambles which included a second-round 77 – has surely eroded the swagger and aura that encircled him 12 months ago.

Or has it?

“I think we know, and the other players that are playing next week know, that we strike fear in others next week,” Spieth said after his 77 on Friday. “So that’s our idea, that’s going to be my confidence level going in, and we’ll step on the first tee ready to play.”

And what of Willett since his day of glory last April? Well, the parallels with Spieth in terms of form – or lack thereof – are uncanny: a woeful Ryder Cup, mediocre results and technical flaws on display with respect to his long game. Unlike the American, Willett showed no glimpses of the decline to come that week at Augusta, and his upward curve and tremendous consistency prior to his historic win offered no clues that he could be capable of the erratic golf he has since produced.

True, injury and back problems have had a hand in a poor return of just four top 10s since the Masters. But although there were slightly more promising signs at the Maybank Championship a few months ago, he appears stripped of that unerring control which so underpinned his success of 2015 and early 2016.

Analysing the past year, Willett noted on Friday: “There have been some massive highs, but then there have been some pretty low lows.

“You see yourself win one of the best golf tournaments in the world, you feel like you should be able to do that every week. But unfortunately this isn’t a game that you can do that.”

Perhaps it is the British way, but his tone appears far less bullish than that of Spieth’s going into this week’s showpiece at Augusta. Yet there are more similarities than differences between the two men’s performance levels since that fateful Sunday: an afternoon when they were the only two golfers in the world who mattered.

They are still the last two men to have won a green jacket, which, in itself warrants the respect of including them in the conversation of contenders for 2017. Yet it is indeed little more than token respect, given that there are other flowers who are currently in full bloom as Thursday rapidly approaches.

As ever, Augusta is a week in which legends are both made and slayed, and where careers can be set on unexpected paths – good and bad. Such is the mystique of the place, which sets it apart from all the rest. Nothing is as straightforward as it seems, and even those who have done it before can come unstuck. It is why captivating viewing is a given, and why there is simply no excuse for making other plans as the most magical week of all hits our screens this week.

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