In defeating Woods (again), Immelman looks like the real deal

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods was wrong.

Golf's elusive, never-before-accomplished Grand Slam was not "easily within reason." Not for him, at least. Not this year.

As Woods slowly pulled his dark-colored Buick SUV onto Magnolia Lane, leaving Augusta National Golf Club and his dream of a fifth career Masters title in the rearview mirror Sunday evening, Trevor Immelman -- the only man for whom the Slam is now "within reason" this year -- was walking up the 18th fairway, tipping his cap to the newfound devotees, a confident, content smile stretched across his face.

Next came an easy par on the final hole to polish off a three-stroke victory, a brief post-round celebration with family and friends, the fabled green jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin. And now? Worldwide acclaim as the next, "Who's he?" of major lore.

Let's set the record straight: Immelman is neither Rich Beem nor Shaun Micheel; he's not Ben Curtis or Todd Hamilton. Take nothing away from some of this decade's unlikeliest major champions, but each should be considered a bigger shock to the system that summarily churns out major champions of single-name proportions than the most recent entrant into the club. And though Trevor may not have the Q-rating of a Tiger, Phil, Ernie or Vijay, this Masters victory proved the 28-year-old has the stuff to continue ranking among the world's elite performers.

"I've always dreamed about winning majors and, deep down, I always thought I was good enough," said Immelman, who owned only one previous PGA Tour victory, but five others internationally, "but, you know, at times you obviously doubt yourself because, you know, you miss a few cuts and you screw up a few times and you're just like, 'Man, maybe I'm not as good, or not good enough.'

"Obviously, this is a tremendous confidence boost, and now that I know that I have got one under my belt, all I can do is go out there and prepare well for the majors from now on, and just try my best. I mean, I'm definitely not going to sit back and go, 'OK, that's me, I'm done,' if that's the answer you're looking for. I'm going to keep working hard and trying to make the most of what I've been given."

Ever since Woods burst onto the major championship scene with that momentous 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters, we've been searching for that great rival, a man who could play Arnie -- or, at the very least, Watson -- to his Jack. Such players have come in both laconic bursts of brief success and steady, subservient misadventures, but none have laid claim to the throne of challenger. Lest we heap too much praise and promise upon Immelman, know that he has already lived up to the moniker of Tiger Tamer on a grand stage. Twice.

Two years ago, while en route to winning the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year award, Immelman birdied three of the final four holes to topple a hard-charging Woods at the erstwhile Western Open. And on Sunday, with the 13-time major winner admittedly faltering in familiar surroundings, the South African was left as the only player above his name on the leaderboard at Augusta National.

"I'm playing in Tiger Woods' era," said Immelman, who shot rounds of 68-68-69-75 this week. "The guy boggles my mind. … I'm an avid sports fan and I study top sportsmen, and this guy is frightening in what he gets done and how he gets it done and the ease in which he gets it done. To win 13 majors at the age of [32] is just frightening. It's just crazy to think how many he's going to get to."

Then again, it's also crazy to think that in this era of supposed sole dominance by the No. 1-ranked player, a quartet of first-timers have claimed four of the past five major championship trophies, keeping Woods from inching ever so much closer to Nicklaus' all-time record of 18.

"To win a major while he's playing, and he's playing at his peak … it's a hell of an achievement," Immelman said. "I'm not sure if I'll ever get it done again, but I'll be trying my best."

Therein lies the greatest question for the newest major champion. Now listed at 15th on the Official World Golf Ranking, expect Immelman to become more than simply one half of an answer to the Masters trivia question, Which two back-to-back champions had the lowest number of combined PGA Tour victories at the time of their wins? (Zach Johnson and Immelman together totaled two.)

Instead, Immelman will compete in, contend for and, yes, win more lofty titles throughout his career. How can we be so sure? Let's start with the pedigree, which includes a U.S. PubLinks title at age 18; then examine a swing referred to by Gary Player as "the closest I've ever seen to Ben Hogan"; and, finally, take note of an all-around game that ranked in the top four in driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation and putting at Augusta. No, it won't be enough to consistently challenge Tiger on a regular basis, but Immelman is the closest thing there is to a young player who stands toe-to-toe with him -- and that should stand for something.

For his part, when asked afterward about the Grand Slam bid gone awry, Woods confided, "I learned my lesson there with the press. I'm not going to say anything."

As for Immelman, he knows his limitations. When pressed with a question about whether his own attempt at all four was "within reason," it didn't take long for an answer. "Probably not," he said with a laugh. "No."

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com