Masters 2017: Willett the champion nobody is backing

Victory at Augusta last year catapulted Danny Willett into the big time, but that major triumph looks more anomalous now than ever.

It would be harsh to call Danny Willett a fortunate Masters winner, but those who dared whisper 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 English rival was neither uncommon nor without merit.

It is an opinion that has gained credibility in the 12 months since, with Willett having failed to add to his title haul, while he summarised 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 equalled by compatriots Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick but surpassed by nobody - a score only one stroke shy of Spieth's opening-round 66, which stood as the best of that week.

As much as Spieth got jammed in reverse gear, it is important to note that no other player besides Willett in that stellar field overtook him, with only perennial nearly-man Lee Westwood even managing to draw alongside him.

Spieth certainly lost something that day - a couple of golf 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 prior owner.

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

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

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

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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 Championship, and 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 Technologies Match Play after losing two of his three group games, including a 6 and 5 reverse against Bill Haas.

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

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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