AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Their faces told the story, and what was left unsaid by weary eyes and pained expressions was screamed by body language that articulated the frustration of the day. Trevor Immelman claimed the green jacket Sunday at the Masters, but only after a tussle with an Augusta National Golf Club that humbled even Tiger Woods in a windswept final round where birdies were mere rumors and par a welcomed safe haven.
To say no one got it going on Sunday would be an understatement akin to saying the iceberg got the better of the Titanic. None of the top 22 players on the leaderboard after 54 holes broke par in the final round, and only four of the 45 in the field managed the feat on the day. The top 15 on the leaderboard after three rounds averaged 75.07 on Sunday, with only Woods, Stewart Cink and Phil Mickelson among that 15 matching par at 72.
The difficulty of the course -- and its new nature -- was demonstrated when Immelman took a five-stroke lead with five holes to play. The question was not whether someone would make a run at him but whether he would make the mistake that would give others hope. That is part of the new character of this course, and that character was given added teeth Sunday by swirling wind that topped 30 mph and tossed shots all over the finely manicured hills.
The 28-year-old South African made it closer than it needed to be, making a double-bogey on No. 16 after hitting the water and needing a 4-foot par putt on No. 17 after missing the green in the bunker. But the 75 Immelman posted Sunday to finish at 8-under-par 280, three strokes ahead of Woods, who finished second despite struggles with his putter, was more impressive than the score indicates. It was nice work relative to the car wrecks going on around him. The three players between Immelman and Woods at the start of play Sunday all had difficult days, with Brandt Snedeker shooting a 77, Steve Flesch a 78 and Paul Casey a 79.
Woods, whose closing 72 put him at 5-under-par 283, never got anything going, making only two birdies in the final round. Uncharacteristically, Woods missed makeable birdie tries on Nos. 13, 15 and 16 and three-putted the 14th for bogey. That Woods finished second with what was about his B-minus game -- he really did nothing especially well and struggled with the putter all week -- speaks to how dramatically he has separated himself from the rest of his competition.
This was simply not Woods' week. When he made a birdie putt on the last hole, he gave a shrug as if to say, "Yeah. Now it goes in. Too late, dude." When Woods wins a major, he usually sends out a signal of the impending triumph by Friday night. There was never that feeling this week. Only in the third round, when he passed a passel of people with a 68, did Woods resemble the dominant player who has won 64 PGA Tour events and 13 major championships.
"I just didn't make any putts all week," Woods said. "I hit the ball well enough to contend, I definitely hit the ball well enough to put pressure on Trevor, but I just didn't make any putts." Perhaps the ultimate frustration for Woods came as he searched for sleep Sunday night knowing a mere 69 on the final 18 holes should be enough to get him into a playoff with Immelman.
Immelman had his ups and downs over the closing 18 holes, but he never surrendered to the pressure of the day. He knows all about not giving up. A year ago, he picked up a parasite and lost 25 pounds. And this past winter, he had a nonmalignant tumor the size of a golf ball removed from his chest.
He joined three-time Masters winner Gary Player as the only South Africans to take home the green jacket, accomplishing a feat his better-known countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have not managed.
"He just told me to keep my head still on my putts," Immelman said about the advice he got in a phone call from Player on Saturday night. "I'm glad I did it for him today."
The back nine at Augusta National has always been the most exciting closing nine in championship golf. But it used to be birdies and eagles that sent massive roars cascading through the towering Georgia pines and established that reputation. The addition of more trees and more length and, on this day, more wind, has changed all that.
The days of a closing 30 to win the Masters -- as Jack Nicklaus did in 1986 -- are gone. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste. Certainly, the closing moments Sunday were filled with high drama, albeit of a painful variety rather than the euphoric thrill of a birdie barrage or a late charge.
As Immelman walked to the 18th tee with a seemingly unblowable three-stroke margin, four words came to mind: Jean van de Velde. But there was no burn and no fescue to mess with his mind -- just a rail-thin chute of trees through which to thread his drive.
Immelman, whose pace of play can be timed with a sundial, stared at the ball on the tee, then split the fairway and let out a deep sigh only to walk to his ball and find it smack dab in a deep divot. But ever so much the ball striker, he finessed it onto the green and ended with a par to appreciative roars, a popular champion as much for his humble manner as for his rock-solid swing.
The results left little question about whether Immelman is a deserving champion. He is, and it would not be surprising if more majors follow. There is, however, an interesting question about the Masters itself. Do we want this tournament won with a closing round of 75 by the 54-hole leader?
There is no certain answer, but it is a question sure to be raised after Sunday's play. This much is clear: Drama comes in many forms. It's all a matter of where you are sitting that determines the entertainment value. Tragedy, as the saying goes, is when I get hit in the head. Comedy, he continued, is when you get hit in the head. Sunday at the Masters had a bit of both.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.