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Immelman conquers a brutal Augusta layout; No Grand Slam for Tiger

Photo: John Biever/SI

Immelman is the first South African Masters champion since Gary Player.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Trevor Immelman swings like Ben Hogan, looks like Paul Casey, and until Sunday was best known in the U.S. for a PGA Tour TV spot in which he narrated his imagined FedEx Cup victory into a hairbrush.

Not anymore. In swirling winds that wreaked havoc on most of the field, Immelman held his nerve and survived a late double bogey to shoot a final-round 75 and win the 2008 Masters by three shots over Tiger Woods, who also finished second in 2007.

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

Stewart Cink, paired with Woods in the third-to-last group of the day, shot a 72 to finish in a tie for third with Brandt Snedeker, who played with Immelman and missed several short putts on the way to a 77.

"The way it was playing, pars on all those back-nine holes were just such a good score," Immelman said. "How many two-shot swings did we have today? You could have a two-shot swing every hole. I just tried to hang in there."

Steve Flesch shot his worst round of the week, a 78, to drop into a tie for fifth at two under par with Padraig Harrington (72 on Sunday) and Phil Mickelson (72).

Immelman led most of the day. He was caught briefly at 10-under when Snedeker elicited Sunday's biggest roar with an eagle on the par-5 second hole, but Snedeker fought his putter and began to lose shots, while Immelman held relatively steady. Woods lurked on the first page of the leaderboard throughout the day but was never a factor.

"To win a major while he's playing — and he's playing at his peak, he's told us that — is a hell of an achievement," Immelman said. The 28-year-old is the first South African to win the green jacket since Gary Player 30 years ago, which comes as no surprise to Player himself, since Immelman possesses a swing that the grand old man of South African golf likens to Hogan's.

That swing held up. Immelman hit 48 of 56 fairways to lead the field at 85 percent (compared to 68 percent for Woods), and hit 51 of 72 greens in regulation. (Only Brian Bateman, with 52, hit more.) The winner took 112 putts, tied for fourth best.

Immelman has until now been fourth on the list of the three most prominent South African golfers (Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Rory Sabbatini) and could have been excused if he felt not only overlooked but slighted. Even his friends haven't always seemed to line up in his corner. When Immelman used a belly putter to win a tournament in Europe in 2004, Els was quoted calling the long putter legalized cheating. Immelman was hardly the first to win with the long wand, and he'd just nabbed the biggest victory of his career. He felt singled out by Els.

"I only used it for two months," he told Golf Magazine at the 2006 Tour Championship. "I was trying to create a feel. We've always been friends, but it was kind of a touchy subject for a little while."

Els is 38, about the same age as Immelman's brother Mark. They played junior and amateur golf together. If a South African was going to win the Masters, the Big Easy (74-74, missed the cut) and Goosen (76 on Sunday, T17) seemed like the most likely candidates. Sabbatini (75-74, missed the cut) had tied for second place at the 2007 Masters.

Immelman was an afterthought. Eight months after he came down with a stomach parasite at the 2007 Masters, a bug that caused him to lose 25 pounds in three weeks, doctors found and removed a tumor on his diaphragm in December. He had to wait two days to find out if it was benign (it was) and began this season barely able to swing a club. Coming into Masters week he had missed four cuts in eight starts.

But Immelman is used to being the forgotten man, just as he is used to being singled out for some perceived unfair advantage. He won the 2006 Western Open and was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, but critics said he'd made it to the Show only because he'd been Player's captain's pick on the 2005 Presidents Cup team. In fact, Immelman had earned his way onto the Tour by making as much money as a non-member in 2005 as the 125th-place player on the PGA Tour money list in 2004. He belonged.

"I earned my way onto the Tour," he said in 2006. "People still get it wrong. It was annoying; I didn't want people to think I got a free pass on the Tour, which should never be allowed. I've tried to correct that any time it's come up."

Only two players had won the Masters in their 20s in the last two decades, Woods (four times) and Jose Maria Olazabal. Conventional wisdom had it that Immelman or Snedeker — probably both — would fall apart on the weekend.

The most shocking lapses, in fact, came from Mickelson and Woods.

Mickelson never got over his third shot hitting the flagstick on the 8th hole on Saturday, a bad break that left him with a long birdie putt. He tried to jam his long putt into the hole anyway, and watched it miss and roll four feet past. He missed the next one, too — and missed another sure birdie on the par-5 15th, again pulling a short putt. He yanked his tee shot into the back bunker on the par-3 16th hole, which led to a double-bogey and a 75 on Saturday. He never made a move Sunday.

Woods, meanwhile, spent almost as much time this week talking to himself as to caddie Steve Williams. Tiger was heard on CBS calling himself a "dumb ass" for missing his drive on 15 on Saturday, a day after he chastised himself with a stern "Woodrow!" following another foul tee ball. But it was his putter — which he'd wielded with astonishing alacrity all year — that was his downfall Sunday. Woods missed putt after putt on the way to an even-par 72, failing to take advantage of the par-5s. While he spent much of the week concocting new and comical ways to make par on 18, his flat stick finally showed up on the 72nd hole, as he rolled in a birdie putt, then made a sarcastic wave, as if to tell his putter, "Hey, glad you could make it."

That left Immelman as the last man standing, a man who withstood everything fate could dish out, everything Augusta gave him — even the divot that tried to swallow his ball in the 18th fairway.

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

Well, he used to hate them.

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