Last season on the PGA Tour, Danny Willett attempted 148 putts from between 3 and 5 feet.
He made 135 of them. That’s a conversion rate of 91.22%.
So, when Willett sized up a birdie putt from 3 feet 7 inches on the 72nd hole of the Fortinet Championship Sunday, you had to like his chances.
By now, you likely know what happened next. Willett missed the putt, hammering it through the gentle left-to-right break. The comebacker was slightly longer — 4 feet 8 inches — but still a length from which Tour pros rarely miss. Willett? He botched it again, becoming the only player all week at the Fortinet to three-putt from within five feet while simultaneously kicking away a golden opportunity to claim his first title on U.S. soil since the 2016 Masters. Pick your favorite “s” word: stunning, shocking, startling, stupefying. They all applied.
How did it happen? Some things are unexplainable. But Willett, to his credit, hung around on Sunday evening in Napa and did his best to unpack it all.
The context is important.
Just a few minutes before Willett addressed his first putt, you couldn’t have blamed him for already thinking ahead to popping bottles at his victory party. His closest chaser, Max Homa, was lying three off the green, needing a miracle hole-out to draw within one. Willett, meanwhile, had just stuffed a spinny wedge shot that left him within kick-in range. Homa looked primed to make par at best; Willett looked assured of a birdie. You could comfortably flip back to your favorite NFL team. The tournament was as good as over.
Again, you likely know what happened next. Homa jarred his chip. All Willett could do was munch on his gum and smile. He later said he had expected Homa to make it — that’s a wise strategy in match-play situations: expect the best out of your opponent so you’re mentally ready for anything — but deep down, did Willett really think Homa would make a 4? He couldn’t have. As Willett himself later said, “It’s still a bit of a shock when it happens.”
Suddenly, Willett had one putt for the win instead of two.
Still…from a mere 43 inches! Not quite inside the leather, but not far outside it, either.
Willett had been paying close attention to the 11-foot birdie putt of his playing partner Justin Lower. The putt was on the opposite side of the hole from Willett’s shorty, but there still were learnings to be had when Lower’s try drifted by the hole.
“Justin’s obviously stayed right on the first one,” Willett said afterward, “which was a bit strange with how I was seeing mine, because I saw mine pretty nicely left to right.”
Seeds of doubt are never helpful on the greens, but are especially problematic when you’re staring down a putt for $1.44 million. Judging from his stroke, Willett didn’t want to give his ball much choice but to disappear into the hole. He rammed it. “I hit it obviously far too hard,” Willett said. The ball glanced off the left edge of the cup and left him nearly 5 feet coming back.
“He’s not done yet,” one of the announcers said.
“Not done yet at all,” said another.
Homa looked on pensively tugging on his beard.
Now, Willett faced a right-to-lefter, again from a distance from which he’d normally walk in putts. But when a PGA Tour title is on the line, the greens feel faster and the holes look smaller. Willett still had Lower’s putt on his mind.
“From where he was coming from, I thought it was straighter,” Willett said of his own par try. It wasn’t straight. Halfway to the hole, Willett’s putt tugged left. “Again, yeah, just ended up tailing off and missing,” he said.
Stunning, shocking, startling, stupefying.
In the moment, it was hard to recall a more jarring PGA Tour finish. The combination of Homa’s heroics paired with Willett’s heartbreak was almost too much to process. “That was crazy,” Homa said after the dust had settled and he’d claimed his fifth Tour win. “I still don’t really know what happened. Just kind of one of those weekends you just had to hang around I felt like.”
Hang around, because you never know what 72nd-hole pressure might do to a golfer.
“On 18, it was a weird situation,” Homa said. “Danny hit a beautiful shot in there, and four feet for the win. It’s always going to be a bit trickier, but the way he was playing and the way he was putting, made an unbelievable putt on 17 for par. I kind of had to assume he was going to make it.”
On the PGA Tour these days, the guys like to talk a lot about legacy — i.e., one of the few things LIV Golf can’t buy. Fighting for titles isn’t so much about the money as it as about the chance to play for history. That may be true to many players, but the cash still matters. It always does. When Willett’s par putt on 18 nicked the left edge of the hole but didn’t drop, he had lost not only the chance to compete in a playoff for his second Tour win but also $568,000, the difference between first- and second-place prize money.
If the Englishman was crestfallen, he did an admirable job not showing it.
“Disappointing way to finish,” he said. “But, you know, first [tournament] out of the season. Like I said, to be in contention, things are in a good place. Yeah, we’ll live to fight another day.”