Immelman grabs first major title with Masters win

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Trevor Immelman felt goose bumps as he listened to a phone message left by Gary Player, his childhood idol and the last South African to slip on a green jacket at the Masters.

Player told him to believe in himself, to be strong through the adversity that was sure to find him during the wind-whipped final round at Augusta National.

"I took that all to heart," Immelman said after a three-shot victory. "And I'm sure he's proud of me."

For more than just his golf.

Only four months ago, Immelman was in a hospital in South Africa as doctors prepared to remove a tumor from his diaphragm, learning only after the operation that it was benign. On Sunday, as he stood over a slippery 20-foot putt for par as Tiger Woods was trying to make a charge, Immelman passed his biggest test in golf.

Immelman came up clutch around Amen Corner, stretched his lead to as many as six shots, and held on for a 3-over 75 to become the first South African since Player in 1978 to wear the coveted green jacket.

"This has been the ultimate roller-coaster ride, and I hate roller coasters," Immelman said.

He wins a tournament in South Africa. He's in the hospital a week later as doctors slice open his back to remove a tumor. He struggles to contend when he returns to golf. And only last week, he misses another cut on the PGA Tour.

"Here I am ... Masters champion," Immelman said. "It's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."

Reached by telephone in Abu Dhabi, Player told his assistant: "I am so proud of Trevor. What a thrill it was to see him come back from major surgery and beat Tiger. I can't wait to see him and shake his hand personally."

Player is among five players to have won the career Grand Slam. Among active players, Immelman becomes the third South African to capture a major, joining Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

As for that calendar Grand Slam, that will have to wait until next year for Woods.

He never got within five shots of the lead when he was on the course. He twice missed birdie putts inside 8 feet. And he had to settle for a 72 for his fifth runner-up finish in a major.

"I learned my lesson there with the press," Woods said with a smile. He was the one who started the talk about a Grand Slam by stating three months ago that winning all four majors in the same year was "easily within reason."

The only slam possibilities now belong to Immelman, a 28-year-old with a polished swing and quiet determination.

"I knew he was going to make a run," he said, referring to Woods. "To win a major while he's playing, and he's playing at his peak ... it's a hell of an achievement. I'm not sure if I'll ever get it done again, but I'll be trying my best."

Even after Immelman dunked a 7-iron into the water on the 16th hole with a five-shot lead, he regrouped to make double bogey, saved par from a bunker on the 17th and hit the final green despite his tee shot landing in a deep divot.

He tied Arnold Palmer (1962) for the highest final round by a Masters champion, but all that did was make it look closer than it was. The three guys behind Immelman going into the last round were a combined 18-over par. Only four players broke par.

Immelman finished at 8-under 280 and earned $1.35 million for his second PGA Tour, and ninth worldwide. His other U.S. win came two years ago in the Western Open, where Woods was a runner-up.

Immelman applauded the gallery and offered a strongman pose before walking off the green and into the arms of his wife, Carminita, and his 1-year-old son, Jacob, who clasped the flag from the 18th hole.

It was quite a contrast to Brandt Snedeker, who briefly shared the lead on the second hole and was still trying to catch Immelman until hitting another shot into Rae's Creek on the par-5 13th, one of several mistakes.

Snedeker sobbed into a white towel after closing with a 77, leaving him in a tie for third with Stewart Cink (72).

"I went from extreme highs to extreme lows, and that's what you don't want to do around here," Snedeker said.

Immelman had to work hard to keep his cool.

He made a 10-foot par save from the bunker at No. 9 to keep a two-shot cushion, but continued to look shaky. Immelman missed the 11th green well to the right when his chip didn't quite reach and he was left with a 20-foot putt that was slick and dangerous.

Ahead of him, Woods was gaining momentum.

Woods holed a 70-foot birdie putt on the 11th, made an acrobatic escape from the trees on the 13th and spun a wedge down the slope on the par-5 13th that left him 5 feet away for birdie.

Immelman holed his par putt. Woods missed, just as he has done the last two years on the back nine of a major he once dominated. That turn of events kept Woods five shots behind, and he three-putted the 14th to end his hopes.

"I hit the ball well enough to contend," Woods said. "I definitely hit the ball well enough to put some pressure on Trevor. I just didn't make any putts."

The first blast of wind hit Amen Corner an hour before the leaders teed off, a sign of how tough it would be in the final round. And that didn't account for the pressure on four guys contending for the first time in a major -- at Augusta, no less.

The first to fall was Paul Casey, two shots out of the lead until it took him two shots to get out of the bunker on No. 4 for double bogey. Casey dropped six shots in a five-hole stretch, including the par-3 sixth, when he called a penalty on himself for his ball moving a fraction of an inch as he stood over a 3-foot putt. Casey closed with a 79.

Next was Steve Flesch, who was even par through 11 holes and only two shots behind as he stood on the 12th tee, trying to guess whether the swirling wind would be on his side.

He felt a gust as his 8-iron was in flight, and knew what was coming. The ball came down into the creek for a double bogey, and Flesch bogeyed four straight holes after that. He shot a 78 and tied for fifth with British Open champion Padraig Harrington and Phil Mickelson, who each shot 72.

Snedeker provided most of the excitement on an otherwise dull day, holing a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 2 for a share of the lead. He made a 45-foot birdie putt across the green on the 12th to pull within three shots.

But there was a massive shortage of pars, and far too many mistakes, the biggest coming on No. 13.

"Golly, man, if somebody could tell me how to play that second shot, I'd love to know," he said. "Because two days in a row, I've hit it in the damn water."

Immelman wisely laid up, then fired a wedge into the back bank and watched it roll down to 2 feet for birdie. As the bogeys piled up behind him, the South African suddenly found himself in the most beautiful spot at Augusta.

He had a five-shot lead with five holes to play, most of the trouble out of the way.

Even wearing a green jacket, Immelman had a hard time believing how far he had come in such a short time.

"The week before I'm winning a golf tournament and the next week I'm lying in a hospital bed, and you just realize that it can get taken away so fast," he said. "And if you don't enjoy every step of the way, you might regret it."

There were no regrets Sunday. Immelman has never felt better.