AUGUSTA, Ga. – Gary Player knew it was time. Soon the golf world would see it, too.
The first South African ever to win the Masters phoned Trevor Immelman a day before he became the second and left a voicemail saying, “I know you can do it.”
Immelman rewarded that confidence by showing the mettle of a major champion under difficult conditions Sunday, winning the Masters 30 years after Player accomplished the feat for the third and final time.
“It gave me goosebumps,” Immelman said of Player’s voicemail. “(He) told me that he believed in me and I need to believe in myself. And he told me I’ve got to keep my head a little quieter when I putt – he said I’m just peaking too soon.
“He told me to just go out there and be strong through adversity, because he said that adversity would come today, and I just had to deal with it. You know, I took that all to heart, and I’m obviously thankful for the message and I’m sure he’s proud of me.”
A relationship that began when Immelman was just five years old has come full circle. Player hoisted the gap-toothed youngster on his shoulder and posed for a photo when they first met at Immelman’s home club.
The nine-time major championship has been a mentor ever since.
“He’s been kind of like another type of a father for me,” said Immelman. “To have somebody with that much experience on your side, giving you advice, is just incredible. I’m very thankful for that.”
It helped prepare him for the toughest day he’s ever faced on a golf course. A final-round 75 gave Immelman a 280 total that was three shots better than Tiger Woods (72) and four ahead of Stewart Cink (72) and Brandt Snedeker (77).
He held at least a share of the lead after all four rounds, becoming the first champion to do that since Seve Ballesteros in 1980.
“Phenomenal,” said Snedeker, Immelman’s playing partner on Saturday and Sunday. “The last two days I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody drive the ball as well as that, anywhere. It was just an unbelievable display of ball-striking. When he got in trouble, he got right out of it.”
Neither of the Canadian players was a factor over the weekend. Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont., closed with a 74 and finished 17th while Calgary’s Stephen Ames came in with a 75 and was 25th.
Woods never really mounted a serious challenge despite finishing second in a major for the fifth time. He parred each of the par 5’s on Sunday – the holes he’s owned while winning four green jackets – and again struggled with his putter.
The world’s best player showed plenty of frustration throughout the week and waved his hand in disgust after rolling in a birdie at the 72nd hole.
“I just didn’t make any putts all week,” said Woods. “I hit the ball well enough to contend. I hit the ball definitely well enough to put pressure on Trevor back there, but I just didn’t make any putts today.”
Immelman won this event with the kind of ball-striking display that has reminded Player of the great Ben Hogan. He led the field in driving accuracy and was tied for second in greens in regulation.
This Masters was a marathon.
Immelman led a group of four players looking for a breakthrough in the final round and kept his nerve as the wind whipped through the pines around Augusta National and had the signature yellow flags swaying to and fro.
He laid up with his second shot at the par-5 13th before hitting his approach stiff for a birdie that gave him a five-shot lead. Snedeker found Rae’s Creek at the hole for the second straight day and made a bogey that effectively ended his chances.
When Snedeker dropped another shot at the next hole, Immelman was up by six with four holes to play. He found the pond at the par-3 16th but even a double bogey there couldn’t keep him from receiving the green jacket from defending champion Zach Johnson.
“You know, I’ve always dreamed about winning majors, and deep down, I always thought I was good enough,” said Immelman. “At times you obviously doubt yourself because you miss a few cuts and you screw up a few times and you’re just like, man, maybe I’m not as good – or not good enough.”
Snedeker made nine bogeys in the final round and dropped to third place, but leaves this event as a winner in his own right.
He was competing in just his fifth major championship and quickly won over the patrons with his enthusiastic play and ever-present smile. After finishing his round and congratulating Immelman, that smile gave way to tears as he held a towel to his face.
“Just a rough day out there,” said Snedeker. “You know, it’s hard to put that much effort into something and get so little out. But it’s just part of life, part of growing up. Obviously I need a lot more of that.
“It’s just tough right now.”
Almost all of the focus heading into the week was on Woods and his pursuit of winning all four major championships in a calendar year. Immelman flew completely below the radar and it’s easy to understand why – his best finish in a stroke play event this year had been a tie for 40th and he had already missed four cuts, including last week in Houston.
His health had become more important than golf over the past 12 months.
The slender South African lost 22 pounds in a matter of weeks after being diagnosed with a stomach parasite during last year’s Masters before having a cancer scare in December. A benign tumour was removed from his diaphragm then, leaving behind a long scar.
It was only four months ago that he was unable to walk while recovering from that surgery. Now he stands above everyone else on the grandest stage in golf.
“This has probably been the ultimate roller-coaster ride and I hate roller-coasters,” said Immelman. “Here I am after missing the cut last week (and now I’m) Masters champion.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”