2008 Masters: Immelman runs away with the green jacket

Augusta, Ga. | To clarify, Tiger Woods mused some months ago that the single-season Grand Slam was “easily within reason.” He never said it would be easy. It never is. Not for Woods, whose competitive blind spots are limited to the occasional balky putter and an inexplicably pedestrian résumé when playing from the pack; or for Trevor Immelman, who has endured his share of chills and vomiting at Augusta National. And that was before the South African weathered a wind-whipped final turn at the 72nd Masters.

Fifty-two weeks ago, Immelman celebrated the moral triumph of surviving 72 holes at Augusta National, albeit four shots removed from last place. After a mysterious stomach ailment, a painful abdominal surgery and four of the scrappiest rounds ever recorded on the one-time nursery, he had a victory with a bit more staying power.

Thirty years after his idol, Gary Player, collected the last of his three green jackets, Immelman weathered some of the most arduous conditions this side of Carnoustie, an eclectic leaderboard that offered a refreshing mix of marquee staples alongside an emerging youth movement, and the looming Sunday presence of Woods.

That Immelman did so after one of the most trying calendars of his career simply provided the perfect postscript.

“This has probably been the ultimate roller-coaster ride, and I hate roller coasters,” said Immelman, whose closing 75 was the highest final round by a champion since Arnold Palmer fought his way to a Sunday 75 in 1962.

Immelman finished at 8-under 280, three shots ahead of Woods – who finished second in a major championship for the fifth time – and became the first player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 to go wire-to-wire at Augusta National.

It never really was that close. Not for the pack that drifted three shots back by the middle of a cold, windy Sunday; or for Immelman, who arrived at Augusta National feeling good about his health, if not the state of his game.

Immelman had missed the cut in four of the seven stroke-play events he’d played in 2008 and hadn’t finished higher than 40th. More telling than his results on the leaderboard was a putting average (1.862) that ranked in the nether regions (198th) of the PGA Tour.

“To me, it was a matter of when, not if,” said David Leadbetter, Immelman’s longtime swing instructor. “He kept believing that good play is just around the corner.”

It was a good sign then that he made it to the first tee without a trip to the hospital. At the 2007 Masters, Immelman contracted a stomach ailment two days before the first round. He survived IVs, regular doses of Imodium and brutal conditions to tie for 55th. A few weeks later, he was diagnosed with a parasite. The recovery was prolonged and shed 22 pounds from Immelman’s diminutive frame.

Late last year after winning the Nedbank Challenge, Immelman started having stomach pains. A golf ball-sized benign tumor was removed from the right side of his back, and he spent an unnerving, morphine-addled week in a South African hospital.

“Adversity is something you need to love, and he has done that,” Immelman’s father, Johan, said. “It has made him stronger, and that’s what these things do to you.”

The foundation for Immelman’s Masters breakthrough came in late March, when he joined Orlando-area neighbors Justin Rose and Ian Poulter on a scouting trip to Augusta National.

“We just had a fantastic time. Kind of like three kids going to your favorite golf course, playing golf. It was an awesome couple of days,” Immelman said.

Rose won the recon mission. (“Think I might owe him some money,” Immelman said.) Immelman took the formal follow-up with a familiar formula.

In a page pulled directly from Zach Johnson’s plodding playbook, Immelman picked his way around an increasingly unyielding layout, one wedge shot at a time.

Brown is the new black. Forty is the new 30. And the wedge is the new putter at Augusta National. The device du jour for a midlength grinder with grand aspirations.

If Johnson – who marched to his green jacket without attempting to reach any of Augusta National’s par 5s in two shots in 2007 – and Immelman are cut from slightly different statistical molds, they are at least from the same genre. The once undisputed home to the monster long now is the dominion of the midlength and mindful.

“I took a note from how Zach won last year,” said Immelman, who was T-4 in the field in putting average and first in driving accuracy, hitting 48 of 56 fairways. “At times I could have hit that hybrid club, but I stuck to my game plan that I laid out for myself.”

On the weekend, Immelman challenged only the relatively benign second hole in two shots, and all but put the tournament out of reach with a birdie at the par-5 13th that featured a short third shot to 1 foot.

Immelman also shattered the Masters status quo with his stellar play on the demanding par 4s, playing them in 10 under par compared to his closest rivals Woods (2 under), Brandt Snedeker (1 over) and Stewart Cink (2 over).

It’s called (ITAL)high cotton(UNITAL) on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

When his protégé opened with rounds of 68-68 to take a one-stroke lead over Snedeker, Gary Player compared Immelman’s ballstriking to that of Ben Hogan. He didn’t have a legend to back it up, but it appeared as if Woods putted like “Old Tom” Morris in a tweed coat.

For the week, Woods averaged 30 putts per round. Although he recorded only three three-putts, he failed to convert a pair of crucial attempts at the fourth hole (4 feet for par) and 13th (5 feet for birdie) on Sunday. As a result, Woods managed to get up-and-down just four times out of 23 attempts from 40 yards or closer.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Woods 2008 and the 2001, ’02 and ’05 editions was his play on Augusta National’s par 5s. During those victory runs, he played the par 5s in 9 under (’01), 7 under (’02) and 6 under (’05). Last week, he covered the same stretch in 4 under.

“I just didn’t make any putts all week. I hit the ball well enough to contend. I hit it well enough to put some pressure on Trevor,” said Woods, who had little trouble with the speed of Augusta National’s greens but struggled to get putts on line. “You have bad weeks and good weeks. This was not one of my best.”

Catch up, it seems is Woods’ only kryptonite. A curious chink in an otherwise impervious armor.

Woods has never clawed back at a major after spotting the field a 54-hole lead, and in his 64 Tour tilts he’s never rallied from more than five shots back after three rounds. The game’s preeminent front-runner seems to struggle in Sunday traffic.

“I don’t think he’s had enough practice. Practice makes perfect,” Leadbetter said. “There’s no logical reason for it. It’s very strange.”

After winning three of his first six Masters as a pro, Woods since is 1-for-6 amid the pines. For years, conventional wisdom suggested Woods owned Augusta National. Recent history suggests he was just subletting the place.

Not that Woods was ever far from the top of the leaderboard, or the leaders’ minds. He was never more than seven strokes from the top and was at his scrambling best when he saved par at the 18th hole from the 10th fairway to finish his round Friday and threaded a 7-iron through a 4-foot gap in the pines a day later to close with another par.

“His dad told me a long time ago, ‘You don’t have to ever worry about Tiger in the woods. His last name is Woods,’ ” said Hank Haney, Woods’ swing coach.

As for the single-year Grand Slam, Haney was equally confident: “I wouldn’t bet against him doing it in his career, I know that.”

While Woods provided a measure of familiarity to the marquee, for much of the week the headlines had a “leaderboard next” look to it.

Day 1 was kids day at the gate, the first time children were admitted free with a ticket-toting patron, and on the leaderboard.

Immelman, 28, and Rose, 27, shared the first-round lead at 4 under, followed by Snedeker, 27, and others a shot back. The 32-year-old Poulter – whom Woods calls “No. 2,” a sharp arrow playfully thrown following the Englishman’s media misstep earlier this season – trailed by two.

Rose faded on Day 2 (78), while Poulter stumbled on Saturday, playing Nos. 9 and 10 in 3 over. By Sunday, they were not alone.

The collective Tour resume between Woods and green jacket No. 5 heading into Sunday included six titles. That’s a good spring, or a bad summer, for the world No. 1. Between Immelman, Snedeker, Steve Flesch and Paul Casey, the group had 18 top-20 finishes in majors. Woods nearly doubled them up with 35.

As pedigrees go, this one had a “Kansas vs. the play-in team” feel to it.

Faced with wind gusts up to 25 mph and greens dehydrated by Mother Nature and Subair, the list of potential Sunday contenders quickly dwindled. None of the top 22 players after Round 3 managed to break par Sunday, and the scoring average soared to 74.66.

Immelman and Snedeker held down the final spot on the Saturday and Sunday tee sheets, the Tour’s last two Rookies of the Year with little by way of major maturity and even less fear.

Snedeker, who was playing his first Masters as a professional but estimates he played the venerable layout 40 or 50 times, quickly closed the gap to a stroke with a 40-foot eagle putt at the second. Unsteady putting slowed his climb and he hit his second shot into Rae’s Creek for the second consecutive day at the 13th to fall out of the hunt.

“If somebody could tell me how to play that second shot, I’d love to know because two days in a row I’ve hit it right in the middle of that damn water,” said Snedeker, who closed with 77 to tie with Cink (72) for third at 4-under 284.

On script, what drama remained unfolded on Augusta National’s Amen Corner. Within five minutes on a blustery afternoon, Immelman scrambled for a nervous par at the 11th, holing a 15-foot par putt from the fringe; Flesch also rinsed his title hopes in Rae’s Creek with a double-bogey 5 at the 12th hole, and Woods missed his 5-footer for birdie at the 13th. Amen, indeed.

Immelman, a man of all seasons, endured three seasons in one week – warm and muggy on Thursday and Friday, stormy on Saturday, and cold and windy for the final round. Just as he’s had to endure more off-course trials than your off-the-shelf 28-year-old. Small price to pay for a jacket he’s coveted since age 5.

Johan Immelman remembers rousing his sons each spring to watch the Masters. Separated by an ocean and seven time zones meant the action would unfold sometime around midnight. Each year, the threesome would huddle under blankets, sip coffee and watch history. It had a profound impact on his youngest son.

“We would lie in front of the TV and watch our heroes like Seve and Ben Crenshaw and Jack (Nicklaus),” said Immelman’s brother, Mark. “Dreaming to get here was one thing, and then to eventually get to come and get to experience it and then obviously this (winning) is just a cherry on the cake.”

It wasn’t easy. But then Immelman never thought it would be.

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