After two health scares in 2007, Immelman is back on track

Immelman closed his round with back-to-back birdies.
Robert Beck/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Trevor Immelman's body took an unplayable in 2007.

First came the stomach parasite. He picked it up at last year's Masters, maybe from a pimento-and-cheese sandwich, someone joked Thursday after Immelman fired a 68. He shot another 68 on Friday and a 69 on Saturday to lead the Masters by two shots heading into the final round.

He doesn't know how it got there, but the parasite was a doozy. Immelman, the 2006 Cialis Western Open champion, was so afflicted with projectile dysfunction that he lost 25 pounds in three weeks. He sat out for a month but lost his game for longer.

"It felt like it took three or four months," he said, to get back to full strength.

Case in point: Immelman, 28, went a desultory 0-3-1 in the Presidents Cup in late September. He resolved to get stronger, embarking to his native South Africa to work on strength and fitness. By the end of October he was back to 180 pounds, in the best shape of his life. Good thing, too, because fate wasn't done with him yet.

Shortly after Immelman beat Justin Rose by a stroke at the Nedbank Challenge on Dec. 2, his stomach started hurting again. He went in to have it checked out, and the good news was it wasn't the old parasite back for more. The bad news: It was a tumor, on his diaphragm. Immelman cancelled plans to return to his Orlando home by New Year's, and doctors in South Africa made a six-inch incision in his back and removed the mass. It was benign.

"It was some pretty scary stuff, really," Immelman said. "I was in the hospital for a while, and it took a couple days to get the results back, so that was pretty hair-raising."

Once again, Immelman began to put himself back together, began to try to get his game back. He missed the cut in his first two starts of 2008, in Phoenix and L.A., and lost a heartbreaker in 25 holes to Henrik Stenson in the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Arizona. He missed the cut again at the Honda Classic.

This is the point in the story where the protagonist usually begins to have second thoughts about exactly what he's doing. Immelman has said if he weren't a golfer he would be playing the drums. His father played in a band, and so did his brother, his dad's brother and two of his mother's brothers. A cousin still does. Immelman is tight with Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres; it's a friendship rooted in golf and percussions that began at the Dunhill Links pro-am in Scotland four years ago.

So yes, he could have quit, could have gone into the family business of banging on the drums all day, but Immelman is not the type to go away quietly. This is not surprising considering he models himself after Gary Player.

As if he somehow sensed Immelman's trying 2007 before it happened, Player once gave his young countryman some prescient advice. "He told me to just look at the bigger picture when you're feeling down," Immelman said, "because it's never as bad as you think."

Sure enough, Immelman began to rediscover his form in March. He made the cut in Tampa, then Orlando, but finished back in the pack. He still didn't look like a three-time European Tour winner and the 2006 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. "I knew I had to just try to stay patient with myself," Immelman said.

After another so-so week at the (no cut) WGC-CA Championship, and the next day's Tavistock Cup (the club match between Isleworth and Lake Nona) Immelman, Rose and Ian Poulter were all thinking about the same thing: the Masters. It was time for a road trip. While the rest of the Tour was in New Orleans, the three Lake Nona neighbors flew into Augusta just in time for a late round Friday, dined at T-Bonz steakhouse, bunked at the Marriott, played the National again Saturday morning, and left.

Immelman didn't think twice about the guy's weekend until Poulter elicited a massive roar with his hole-in-one on 16 in round one. Immelman was on the third green.

"My caddie and I had a good chuckle when we saw that it was him who holed it," he said. Meantime, Rose was hanging around with Immelman atop the leaderboard. Their 30-some hours in Augusta had been the most fruitful road trip since Crosby met Hope.

The Masters is a hard tournament to win, and Immelman has only played in it five times, with his best finish a tie for fifth place in 2005. But after all that's happened, you get the feeling he might tough it out on Sunday. A few years ago, before calamity punched him in the gut twice in eight months, Immelman was asked about his greatest strength as a golfer.

His reply: "Never quitting."

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