Masters champ Immelman is on the mend

Trevor Immelman

Trevor Immelman has no interest in looking at the world ranking these days.

It's not that he doesn't have time to scroll through the pages until he finds his name at No. 269. Immelman has lost the better part of two years with a left wrist injury, and these are the consequences. He accepts that.

He just has trouble recognizing that guy so far down the list.

Of all the major champions from the last five seasons, all but Immelman remain in the top 60 in the world.

"Really, in the last 18 months, that hasn't been me playing," he said. "I don't mean that in an arrogant sense. I know what I'm capable of when I'm feeling good and feeling strong. I'm going to give myself a full season, and then see how that pans out."

For the first time in two years, Immelman wakes up without feeling a pounding sensation in his left wrist. He has been working diligently on the practice range at Lake Nona for a new season. It feels like a new beginning, complete with an equipment deal soon to be announced.

"I'm excited," he said. "Everything is right on track. I'm looking forward to a full season again. It's been a few years."

The last time Immelman felt this good about his health was in 2008, and it featured a masterful performance.

The 30-year-old South African was so dominant at Augusta National that he built a six-shot lead on the back nine and went on to win the Masters by three shots over Tiger Woods. One of the lasting images was Immelman striking a muscleman pose on the 18th green.

Such strength has not come easily since then.

Immelman already has dealt with a few health scares even before slipping on the green jacket. He lost 25 pounds from a stomach parasite in 2007. Later that year, doctors had to slice open his back to remove a tumor from inside his rib cage, and only after the operation did they learn it was benign.

The most recent scar doesn't look like that big of a deal. Immelman rolled up a winter coat on a cold day in Orlando, then brushed back some hair to show a tiny scar from his wrist surgery last December.

So small, yet so much trouble.

He first noticed a twinge in his left wrist toward the end of 2008, and it got so bad the following year he had to withdraw from the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. He thought the rest would help, but the few times he tried to play, he didn't finish higher than 50th if he made the cut.

"The final straw was in Las Vegas last year," he said. "I played a Tuesday practice round, and I was in so much pain that I went back to the hotel and said to (wife) Carminita, 'I don't think I can muscle through this."

He withdrew from the tournament, flew to New York and had surgery a short time later. Immelman was in a cast for three weeks, and it was three months before he had enough strength to even grip a putter.

It was an exercise in patience in so many other ways.

Immelman is the opposite of another Masters champion — Phil Mickelson — in that he does everything left-handed except playing golf and playing the guitar. He had to learn simply chores like brushing his teeth with his right hand.

Swing coach David Leadbetter says the strength in his wrist is about 95 percent, and the desire is as strong as ever.

"I think he's in a good place," Leadbetter said. "I fully expect him to really get it back. It wasn't a shock he won Augusta because he's been a very, very good player for a long time. Since that time, people say, 'Geez, what happened to him? He dropped off the face of the earth.' Not quite. Certain injuries can derail a player.

"The good thing is he's young enough, and experienced enough, that he's looking at a new dawn, so to speak."

Immelman plans to start his new season at the Bob Hope Classic. The only change might be travel, for while he is loyal to the European Tour, the new minimum requirement of 13 tournaments might be tough on him because of his status. Having fallen so far in the ranking, Immelman is not in the World Golf Championships that count toward both tours.

About the only good that came out of his injury was time at home.

His wife recently gave birth to a daughter, and Immelman has had a blast with his 4-year-old son, Jacob. The boy loves sports and loves to fish. Immelman chuckles as he tells stories of Jacob dressing up in his astronaut suit to go to the grocery store and wearing his Dallas Cowboys uniform to church.

"He kept his helmet on the whole time," Immelman said.

Now, Immelman can only wonder if he did as much damage to his confidence as to his wrist.

His doctors told him that while it was safe to play this year after surgery, he might not trust himself until later in the year, and that proved correct. Immelman doesn't believe he can find confidence hitting balls on the range or fine-tuning his swing with Leadbetter.

"Confidence only grows when you shoot 65, when you hit 18 greens in regulation, when you get your name on the leaderboard," he said. "It's never fun not playing how you know you can play. You see that in aging athletes. The game peels off strictly because of age, but they know how great they are and it's tough."

"The relief for me is I'm only 30," he added. "I truly believe my best golf is still ahead of me."

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