AUGUSTA, Ga. — This can only happen in Tiger World. Only here, near the epicenter of Tigermania, can a man remain off the radar after winning the Masters, the game’s most glorious event.
Nobody picked the pleasant but subdued South African, Trevor Immelman, to win the Masters last year. No one expected him to win a final-round duel with Tiger Woods, even though he beat Woods in a Western Open showdown once, and certainly no one expected him to win by three shots despite closing with a 75. He’s the reigning Masters champion this week, but not much has changed. He’s coming to town semi-unnoticed.
In a Masters filled with exciting possibilities, somehow Immelman’s defense seems destined to rank behind Tiger’s triumphant comeback, Phil Mickelson’s return to form, the rise of Geoff Ogilvy, a surprising curtain call by Greg Norman, farewells by Gary Player and Fuzzy Zoeller, Padraig Harrington’s quest for a third straight major championship and the debut of Rory McIlroy. Yes, this is one busy little Masters. Let me know if you spot Immelman’s name in a headline anywhere else this week.
There is a golf pool — a fantasy golf league, basically — that I know of where entrants fill out a form at the start of the year and pick a different golfer for every tournament. No golfer can be used twice. Of the 99 pool participants, only one picked Immelman at the Masters this week. And that entrant is the caddie of a well-known tour player. (By the way, he happens to be in first place in the pool.)
One reason for Immelman’s relatively low profile is that he mostly disappeared for the rest of 2008. He tied for second in Memphis but didn’t have another top-10 finish until the Tour Championship, where he was 10th in a 30-man field.
“I think after I won last year, my expectations got too great,” Immelman said Tuesday morning. “I’m such a perfectionist and I left this tournament thinking, well, I found the secret and I’m going to play like this every week. That’s just not possible. Well, I guess it is because Tiger does it. But whether he’s human or not is still up for debate. When I didn’t play like that, I started putting too much pressure on myself. It took me some time to figure that out and move on. It was only really once the FedEx Cup playoffs started that I started to get rid of some of that mental baggage and started competing properly again.”
Immelman, 29, isn’t colorful, but he does have a superb iron game and a personality. You may remember him from the FedEx Cup commercial in which he pretends to interview himself in a locker room bathroom until Vijay Singh catches him in the act. After an embarrassed pause, Vijay asks, “Trevor, are you OK?”
This season, he’s off to a crawling start. His best showing was 19th at the Transitions Championship. At the WGC-Accenture Match Play, he holed an iron shot on his opening hole but still lost his first-round match.
“Very rarely do I get off to a good start to the year; I’m not too sure why,” Immelman said. “I normally start to find my stride somewhere in the Florida swing.”
Immelman began striking the ball well at the European tour event in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, but he putted terribly. After that, he took four weeks off and20worked hard on his putting, but then the rest of his suffered. “I hit it like crap,” he joked about his return.
It’s been one step forward, one step back. “I played good in Los Angeles the first day and then shot a million on the second day,” he said.
The pattern is remarkably similar to last year. He won one match in Tucson before being ousted, then missed two cuts and finished no better than 40th in three other events leading to Augusta, although he was coming off surgery during the off-season. This year, he feels his game beginning to come together, a good sign.
“My game is starting to feel pretty good,” he said. “Within the last few weeks, it has really started to feel like it’s coming around. I worked on some changes in the offseason that I think are really going to work for me in the long run.”
While Immelman won’t get as much attention as most defending champions, he received plenty around the world during the past year. The green jacket is an international calling card. When he returned to Augusta National last month for a visit, he proudly wore the jacket in between rounds with his brother and caddie. It was a weekend that was filled with emotion and flashbacks.
“When I think back to that week, there are so many incredible memories,” said Immelman. “From arriving at the gates, being welcomed by the security guards, walking into the clubhouse, speaking to the staff — the whole weekend was absolutely goose-bump stuff. Walking into the clubhouse and seeing the trophy with my name on it, seeing my picture on the wall of champions, that was just surreal.”
This week, Immelman gets a chance to re-live his victory and bask in it for a few last moments before going out and trying to do it all over again. A practice round in Monday’s blustery winds was very satisfying, he said. “The whole way around, it was fantastic,” he said. “The patrons have been incredible. Every time I come back, the members here have been so accommodating and welcoming. It feels absolutely awesome to be part of such a great fraternity of golf. That’s something I will always cherish.”
Another Immelman-Woods showdown, however, might be too much too ask. One was pretty remarkable.
“Obviously it has been the defining moment of my career, something I will never forget,” he said. “These are things that at the end of my career, I’ll be able to look back on and tell my kids and grandkids about.”