Masters 2017: Danny Willett, the defending champ nobody is backing

Victory at Augusta last year catapulted Danny Willett into the big time, but that major win looks like a fluke now more than ever.

It would be harsh to call Danny Willett a fortunate Masters winner, but those who whispered it in the aftermath of his 2016 triumph say it with more conviction now.

After Jordan Spieth produced a final-round back nine that would have left many weekend hackers pondering a new hobby, the view that the green jacket had been lost by the American as opposed to won by his rival from England was neither uncommon nor without merit.

It is an opinion that hasgained credibility in the 12 months since, with Willett having failed to add to his victory total, while he summarized his Ryder Cup experience in one four-letter word which —based on a return of zero points from three matches — seemed appropriate.

But Willett shot 67 on that Sunday at Augusta, a score equaled by compatriots Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick but surpassed by nobody — a score only one stroke shy of Spieth's opening-round 66 that stood as the best of that week.

As much as Spieth got jammed in reverse, it is important to note that no other player besides Willett in a stellar field overtook Spieth, with only perennially "close, but …" Lee Westwood managing to draw even with him.

Spieth certainly lost something that day — a couple ofgolf balls, a bit of pride, his head —but the Masters trophy was claimed by the man most deserving of it, not merely surrendered by its defender.

The prevailing view, though, is that this year's defending champ will not come nearly as close to succeeding as Spieth did.

You have to cast your eye a long way down the list of bookmakers' odds before Willett's name comes into view. He is listed as a triple-figure outsider.

It has been an underwhelming season so far for the 29-year-old, who nonetheless is 17th in the world rankings.

Having started the year by missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, he repeated the trick at the Honda Classic, finished 11 over at the WGC-Mexico Championshipand surrendered the lead at the Maybank Championship as an untidy final-round 73 pushed him down into a tie for fifth.

Illness forced his withdrawal from the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he bowed out of the WGC Dell Match Play after losing two of his three group matches, including a 6 and 5 blowout loss to Bill Haas.

And so it is that the reigning champion arrived in Georgia to little fanfare and low expectations. It could work in Willett's favor to be under the radar, but he has confessed that his major breakthrough has brought on difficulties that he did not envision.

The pressure to perform to one's best is there for all, but when your best is Masters champion, that pressure can be punishingly burdensome. It crushed Spieth last year and on that occasion Willett was the beneficiary. This time, he could well be the victim.

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