By Jeff Rude
Trevor Immelman was no stranger to falling down at the end of 2006 golf tournaments. The Wachovia and EDS Byron Nelson in May come to mind. He lost late leads and finished second.
He fell down again at the Cialis Western Open, right on the 18th green at Cog Hill. Only this time it was because he was ecstatic after holing a 32-foot birdie putt that broke about 8 feet right to left.
This time it was because he clinched his first PGA Tour victory. This time it was because he birdied three of the last four holes instead of making late mistakes.
“It gives me goosebumps thinking about it,” the 26-year-old South African said after finishing two strokes ahead of Tiger Woods and Mathew Goggin. “This is what I’ve dreamt of. . . . When you’re dreaming, you might as well dream big.”
Immelman is one of golf’s rising stars. He has a ton of ability in a 5-foot-9 body. He’s a four-time winner in Europe and a 2005 Presidents Cup player impressive enough to ellicit this from Woods: “It was just a matter of time before he won. He has an enormous amount of talent.”
It was just a matter of experience, too. Immelman learned from his close calls in May and drew on them Sunday.
“It’s like you’re not in control of your body,” Immelman said of last-nine pressure. “You do something and you go, ‘Why did I do that?’ ”
So he won in large part because he had lost. He three-putted from 50 feet on the last hole at Wachovia, missing a 10-foot comebacker before losing a playoff to Jim Furyk. And he lost a back-nine lead by making a couple of bogeys coming in at the Nelson, where he finished one stroke back.
“When you’ve got two putts to win and you let it slide, that’s a tough feeling,” he said. “But I really just tried to keep telling myself it was a step up for me in my career to get in the heat of battle.”
Immelman won, too, because he led the field in greens hit in regulation, at 79.2 percent (57 of 72). And he won because he kept control of his emotions.
“There’s just so much adrenaline pumping through your body and you’ve really just got to try to slow your heart rate down and quiet everything,” he said.
Later he added, “If I’m not going to enjoy this moment when I’ve got a chance to win a tournament, then maybe I need to take stock of my life and go back to school or something.”
Immelman’s 69-66-69-67–271 was crowned by those three late birdies – two putts on the long 15th, a 10-footer at 16 and the dramatic breaking bomb at 18.
“If I stood there with 50 balls, I’d probably hole one or two,” he said. “The rest would probably be 4 or 5 feet away.”
The victory was something of a baby gift. His wife, Carminita, is due to give birth to a boy July 27, the Wednesday after the British Open. He plans to play barring unforeseen complications.
Tiger Woods is playing the British, too. He’s going to Royal Liverpool as the no-longer-rusty defending champion. He had come to Cog Hill having played only two competitive rounds since April 9.
Woods started slowly, with a 1-over 72 in which he hit spectators with shots on Nos. 7 and 11 and, in the rarity of rarities, hit three drives off the 15th tee and still made a bogey 6. (He found his original ball in bushes far right, nullifying the provisional tee shot, and took an unplayable-lie penalty and went back to the tee to hit three.)
Woods finished second for the 20th time on Tour, but nobody played better than him the final three days, when he went 12 under.
He shot one of his usual Saturday specials at the Western, a 66 that fit nicely with his 67-65-65
the last three Saturdays here.
Woods straightened out his swing with instructor Hank Haney after rounds – 2 1/2 hours Thursday, 3 hours Friday.
And he just might have been motivated by a Chicago Tribune tease after Round 1 that said Woods “might not make it to Saturday” and a story that started out, “Tiger Woods is in danger of starting a bad habit: Spending his weekends at home.”
Haney remembered that story after Woods vaulted into contention with 67-66 in the middle two rounds.
Haney walked into the media center and, with a stiff upper lip, said defiantly to a friend more than once, “Missed cut, my ass.”
The coach would add, “From what I’ve seen this week, he’s going to turn it up.”
Hoylake, England, here we come, with Woods in search of his 11th major and 49th Tour victory.
“I made some great improvement on the range this week, working all those hours and on all those things I need to hone,” said Woods, sharp except Day 1 and an approach blocked far right on No. 15 Sunday. “It was good (to be back in the hunt). I felt that rush.”
You might say Trevor Immelman felt it, too.