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Published: Monday, 4/14/2008

South Africa has another favorite son

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Trevor Immelman has a two-decades-old picture at home of a 5-year-old kid, his wide, dimpled smile mostly gums and a black hole because of his missing front teeth, sitting atop a man's shoulders.

The little kid was Immelman. The man was Gary Player.

It was 30 years ago that Player, the legend from South Africa, captured his third and final Masters. They've been waiting a long time in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and Pretoria and throughout the lush veldt for another champion, for an Ernie Els or a Retief Goosen to follow in that slight man's giant footsteps here. It took Trevor Immelman to get it done yesterday at Augusta National.

He staggered a bit down the stretch - his heart must have nearly stopped as his ball splashed into a pond next to the 16th green en route to a double bogey - but there was no one close enough to crank the vise and tighten the thumbscrews and apply any real pressure.

Not Tiger Woods, who could do nothing but kick himself over so many missed putts and missed opportunities. So much for that Grand Slam talk. An even-par 72 wasn't enough for the pretournament favorite, who finished as runner-up for the second straight year, or for Stewart Cink, who tied for third. Paul Casey imploded on the front nine and shot 79. Steve Flesch had a 78 and Brandt Snedeker 77 on a goofy-looking card that included an eagle, two birdies, and nine bogeys.

It turned into a walk in the park for Immelman, a guy whose shot-making has been compared to Ben Hogan's, whose swing is considered by some as second to Tiger's, whose glare is as steely as a Goosen or a Raymond Floyd, whose focus seems as unflagging as Nick Faldo back when he was the best closer in the game.

And all the way around, with the wind whipping and the greens drying out and getting shiny, and with collars getting tight and the hole getting smaller, Immelman walked with the words of a message left on his phone late Saturday night from his hero, Gary Player, who teed off in the Masters for a record 51st time this past week, but was miles away en route to the Middle East after missing the cut.

He told Immelman to believe in himself the way Player believed in him. He told him to take his time, to keep his head still on the greens, and to take an extra second or two over every putt. There will be adversity and bad breaks, Player told Immelman, "but be strong as I know you are going to win."

To a South African, it was like a phone call from above.

"It gave me goose bumps," Immelman said 24 hours later, a major championship winner for the first time.

And Immelman answered the call. Sure, he stumbled at No. 16. As he said, there are disasters around every corner at Augusta. Sure, his closing 75 was the highest final round for a Masters champion since Arnold Palmer shot the same number in 1962. You think they asked the King to return that jacket?

It could be said that no one deserved to win yesterday more than Immelman. His health-related issues from the past year have been fairly well documented. He contracted a stomach parasite during last spring's Masters and lost 20-plus pounds in the next several weeks. More seriously, he had a benign tumor removed from his diaphragm just before Christmas and was slow to recover, at least on the golf course.

He'd missed the cut in half of his '08 PGA Tour starts heading into the Masters. The rest resulted in high finishes and so-so paychecks. He felt he was improving but had little proof in performance.

"It has been the ultimate roller-coaster ride, and I hate roller coasters," he said. "I felt like I was starting from zero. I was missing cuts, but I tried to stay positive. Here I am a week after missing the cut in Houston and I'm the Masters champion. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."

Crazy? He came to Augusta as the 196th-ranked putter on tour. He had 112 putts in four days; only two players needed fewer.

Then there was the chip shot to No. 15 on Saturday that spun back off the green and headed down the shaved slope toward the water hazard. Gravity and history say the ball gets wet. Immelman's ball stopped.

Ah, it's a crazy game.

And winning the Masters probably would have been a crazy thought just over two weeks ago when Immelman visited Augusta National with good friends Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, his neighbors at Lake Nona near Orlando.

They just sort of dropped by, played 36 holes, had a friendly little match, put a steak knife to some dead red meat up Washington Road a ways at T-Bonz, and flew back to Florida. It's good work if you can get it.

Immelman, by the way, did not win.

"Justin did, actually," Immelman said. "I think I still owe him some money."

Well, pay up, partner. You look pretty flush.

They shouldn't have any trouble the next time they want to play here, either. A green jacket pretty much always gets you through the front gate.



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