The most extraordinary thing about Trevor Immelman’s 2008 Masters victory was not that he held at least a share of the lead at the end of each round, nor that he held off a charging Tiger Woods on the last day, nor that was considered by bookmakers to be an 80/1 shot for victory at the beginning of the week.
Rather, it was the fact that, just months prior to the biggest win of his career, Immelman was lying on a hospital bed in his native South Africa having a tumour removed from his diaphragm.
April 2008 can wait. Let’s first go back to December 2007.
Having recovered from a debilitating virus that saw him survive solely on toast at The Masters and caused him to lose 22lbs – roughly a stone-and-a-half – Immelman regained his strength and form as the year went on. He finished in a tie for sixth at the US PGA Championship, came fifth at the World Cup of Golf alongside fellow countryman Retief Goosen, and won the million-dollar Nedbank Golf Challenge.
Good? Life was great.
Until the week following the Nedbank, that is, when crippling chest pains forced him to withdraw from the South African Open after just two holes.
He had woken up in pain that morning but told himself it was probably just a pulled muscle. It was only after his brother and caddie, Mark, picked up his ball and sent him to the on-course doctor, who in turn sent him to the nearest hospital (still dressed in his golf clothes), that the full extent of Immelman’s discomfort became clear.
A CAT scan revealed a tumour in his abdomen, the size of a golf ball ironically enough. What the scan couldn’t show was whether or not it was cancerous. That would only be determined after it was removed. For Immelman and his wife Carminita, it was a scary, uncertain time.
“We were pretty worried,” he recalls. “I had just gotten over this weird bug that had caused me so many problems for most of the year, I had won a week earlier, and then, all of a sudden, this. It was tough to take in.”
Fortunately, the doctors moved swiftly and, within 48 hours of first clapping eyes on the tumour, they had removed it. At first, they had thought it might have been on his rib but it was only upon operating that they discovered it was in fact a fibristic tumour attached to his diaphragm.
The next two days were wracked with worry until, finally, the biopsy results came back.
Medically, Immelman was fine, the seven-inch incision that had been made in his lower back had been stitched up and so he was sent home to recover.
Of course, when you’re a professional golfer, whose job it is to swing a golf club around your body at around 120mph, such ‘straightforward procedures’ have far from straightforward professional ramifications. Unable to swing a club for six weeks after the operation, Trevor and Carminita, along with their one-year-old son Jacob, decided to put off returning to their Orlando home, choosing instead to stay in South Africa whilst Trevor recovered. All of which had a knock-on effect on his game.
“It was a very slow process,” he adds. “Even when I started hitting balls again, it took some time for me to feel comfortable with making aggressive swings. I missed the cut in three of my first four PGA Tour events of 2008 and it wasn’t really until the WGC at Doral that I started to hit the ball better.”
Encouraged by his best finish of the year up to that point (a tie for 40th), Immelman added the Shell Houston Open – the week before The Masters – to his schedule.
He failed by a shot to make it to weekend but felt that had more to do with landing on the wrong side of the draw than anything else. “It was a bad week in the sense I missed the cut but a good week in that I could feel my game really starting to come back around,” he says.
He travelled to Augusta National with one simple goal. “I just wanted to have fun.”
He didn’t half.
* * *
THERE HAD BEEN SIGNS that Augusta was a good fit for Immelman. In 2005, on just his second appearance there, he finished fifth. His performance was largely overshadowed by Jack Nicklaus’ farewell to the tournament and Tiger Woods’ fourth victory but those paying attention would have noticed Immelman shooting 65 on the Saturday and tying Woods for the low round of the week.
In 2008, he played a practice round with Gary Player on the Tuesday. The third of Player’s three Masters wins had occurred exactly 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, another of Immelman’s compatriots – Rory Sabbatini – won the Par-3 Competition on the Wednesday, having finished runner-up in the main event a year earlier.
It’s easy to say with hindsight but the stars were aligning above Immelman. Not that he noticed.
“I knew I was in decent shape and wasn’t far off from posting some really good rounds,” he says, “but, honestly, I didn’t have any expectations.
“It’s funny, though. When you look at my career, I tend to have played some of my best stuff when my expectations aren’t all that high.”
So it proved that week.
He hit the front with a first round 68, a score matched by England’s Justin Rose. The same again in round two saw him establish a one-shot lead over Brandt Snedeker at the halfway stage.
He posted a 69 to double his advantage after 54 holes. With one round to play, he was leading the Masters by two shots.
A fog delay earlier on Saturday meant he completed his final few holes in near darkness and so, by the time he got finished up with his media commitments and made the return to his rented accommodation, it was almost 9pm. No bad thing, as it turned out.
“When I got back to the house, there was really only time for dinner before going to bed,” he recalls. “People ask, ‘What’s it like to sleep on the lead at a major championship?’ I can’t speak for anybody else but I was so tired that I had no problems. I slept right through until about 9am the next morning.”
When it came time to tee off, the bad weather that had been forecast was starting to close in. “The wind was gusting at around 35mph,” recalls Immelman. “There was no margin for error.”
There was less still when the then world No.1 started to make a move. Starting the final round six shots adrift of Immelman, Woods overtook Paul Casey, Steve Flesch and Snedeker to apply some pressure on the 28-year-old South African.
Other players might have wilted with Tiger breathing down their necks. Other players have wilted with Tiger breathing down their necks. But he and Immelman had danced this dance before, at the 2006 Western Open. It was closer then, too, and after trading birdie for birdie on the back nine, Immelman had come out on top. That, he says, helped him at Augusta.
“I knew exactly what Tiger was doing,” he recalls. “I could hear the cheers. The thing about Tiger is that he brings this unique energy to a golf tournament. It’s something that had probably been missing since Arnold Palmer’s heyday.
“So, I knew what to expect. Plus, besides anything else, Tiger and I had a good relationship. We started at Nike around the same time and used to practice together in Orlando. It wasn’t like he was unknown to me. I enjoyed it, though. Testing yourself against one of the best players ever to play the game on one of the game’s biggest stages? That’s why you get into it in the first place.”
In the end, Woods' challenge fizzled out when he bogeyed the 14th to fall six behind. As he stood on the tee of the par-3 16th, Immelman had one arm inside the Green Jacket.
What happened next still makes him shudder.
With the wind coming hard off the left, he took aim at the water to the left of the green and aimed to hit a little cut. Instead, he pulled it.
“It caught me totally off guard,” he remembers. “I had played so well all week and, until that point, my ball-striking had been amazing, the best it’s ever been probably. I still don’t really know where that shot came from. I watched it flying towards the water and all I could think was ‘What have you just done?’ I just couldn’t believe it. I honestly wondered if I was blowing it.”
A double-bogey five handed a glimmer of hope to the chasing pack and, when he found a greenside bunker at 17, Immelman faced a career-defining moment, the biggest test of his nerve to date.
Safely out and safely in, he got to enjoy the walk up the 18th at Augusta that every golfer dreams of. Tiger Woods held the clubhouse lead on five-under. Immelman was three shots better off and the only other man on the course, his playing partner Brandt Snedeker, had fallen too far back.
This was his moment.
He two-putted for par and, in that instant, became
South Africa’s second Masters champion and fifth different major winner, following in the foosteps of Gary Player,
Bobby Locke, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.
* * *
“I STARTED PLAYING GOLFaround about the age of five,” says Immelman. “Honestly, it’s all I ever wanted to do. I showed potential, made a lot of sacrifices and worked hard. Every decision I made growing up revolved around making me the best golfer I could possibly be.
“So, in that moment, when I knew I had done it, when I won the Masters, I felt this wave of serenity pass over and through me.
“It’s probably the most at peace I’ve ever been in my entire life.”
That’s what it feels like to win a major.
Of course, The Masters being The Masters, there’s a lot of pomp and ceremony that follows, things like the made-for-TV presentation of the Green Jacket in the Butler Cabin.
“I remember sitting there thinking how surreal it all was,” recalls Immelman. “Like everybody else, I’d grown up watching it on the TV but now, here I was, on the other side of the camera. I had the previous year’s champion, Zach [Johnson], sitting next to me, along with the club chairman [Billy Payne] and Jim Nantz was asking me questions. I felt like I was dreaming.”
It was only whilst doing the media rounds in New York a few days’ later – which included an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman – that the significance of his win hit.
“The thing about The Masters and Augusta National, in particular, is that they transcend golf,” he says. “Lots of people who don’t really watch golf all that much watch The Masters every year. So, suddenly, I had lots more people stopping me to ask for my autograph and congratulating me.
“Before all of that happened, I had been good enough to be inside the world’s top 20 but I could go quietly about my business without having too many obligations to fulfil or things like that. That all changed overnight and in the best way possible.”
Naturally, Immelman’s victory was big news back home in South Africa. Since Gary Player’s 1978 Masters win, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen had won four US Opens and an Open between them, but Augusta charms South Africans in a way that no other tournament does.
“It was nice to be able to share that win with them,” says Immelman. “In fact, in the build-up to going back to Augusta the following year, I ran a competition in a South African newspaper for people to vote on what I should serve at the Champions’ Dinner.
“It had been 30 years since Gary had last won The Masters, so I wanted to include the South African people as much as possible.”
In the end, Bobotie, a spiced meat pie dish from Immelman and his wife’s home region, won out.
“I can remember the evening as though it was yesterday,” he says. “It was cold and windy but everybody really seemed to enjoy the food.
“A lot of players put in a lot of time and effort when they’re making their menu and try to use the opportunity to show off and, for the international players, it’s a good chance to bring some of their culture to what is one of the biggest events in golf.
“So, from Adam Scott’s ‘surf and turf’ to Angel Cabrera’s Argentinean BBQ, there have been some really amazing things served, even in just the time that I have been going there. Phil Mickelson does a particularly good spread, actually.”
Immelman admits the evening is his favourite night
of the year. “The champion could serve crackers and
water and it would still be fantastic,” he says. “Everything about it is brilliant. The company, the food, the setting. I never want to miss it.”
* * *
BY HIS OWN ADMISSON, Immelman's career stalled somewhat after winning the Masters. In the ten years since, he has won only once, and that was on the Web.com Tour.
Sure, there have been injuries. But there have also been mistakes – mistakes that he has absolutely no problem owning up to.
“I honestly thought winning the Masters was going to jump-start my career and be the launchpad for another one or two major victories,” he says. “I always thought I’d have a chance at The Open, to be honest. I love links golf and thought I had the attributes that would help me do well there but it hasn’t really happened.
“I picked up a wrist injury almost right after winning The Masters and, rather than rest up or seek treatment for it, I persevered and ended up carrying on for too long.”
Ultimately, the injury ended up requiring surgery, which resulted in another extended layoff. “When I got back to playing again, it was a long, hard struggle,” he adds. “Every now and then, I’d feel as though I’d turned a corner only to end up back at square one again.
“So, it has been a frustrating few years but, look, that’s not solely down to the injuries I’ve had. A lot of it is the result of getting into bad habits from a technique stand-point. I drifted too far from the blueprint, so to speak, and it took me a while to realise that.”
Having fallen outside the top 1,000 on the Official World Golf Rankings - he had once been as high as 12th - Immelman has started to explore other interests outside the ropes, including TV commentary, but he admits that “there’s still a little fire in the belly flickering away”.
“The question is always whether or not I can
ever get back to the position I was in ten years ago,” he says. “Who knows? All I know is that I’m starting
to see some encouraging signs and I’m healthy, feeling good and still enjoy the work as much as
I ever did.
“Whatever the future holds, I know I’ll be involved in golf in one capacity or another – and I’ll always have won The Masters.”
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