Trevor Immelman won the 2008 Masters. Woo-hoo. Life is rosy. But four months earlier, the 28-year-old was lying in a hospital bed in Somerset West, South Africa, two weeks after winning a tournament, wondering whether a tumor doctors had just removed from under his rib cage was cancerous. It wasn’t, but it got the husband and father of one thinking. Now Immelman says, rather pointedly, “Golf is not what makes me happy.”
Okay, but the game provided some element of joy when he won his first major at Augusta, despite a putting stroke that pundits often claim renders him so maddeningly inconsistent. Today, this quietly focused two-time Tour winner has one of his childhood heroes, fellow South African Gary Player, saying his swing is the smoothest on Tour and “might be the best I’ve seen since Ben Hogan.” His on-course demeanor smacks of Hogan’s all-business attitude as well, but Immelman balks at the comparisons. In fact, sometimes Immelman balks at golf, altogether.
At Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, his home course in Orlando, Fla., obsessive drummer Immelman reveals the BIG QUESTIONS going through his mind after surgery, why he thinks players would be stupid to use performance-enhancing drugs on Tour, and why he won’t reach his peak until his thirties.
How has your life changed since winning the Masters?
More people coming up to me, more people congratulating me, wanting photos and autographs. Me as a person — I’m not going to change. Golf is not everything for me. As I’ve gotten older and gotten married and had a kid, I’ve come to realize that golf is not the thing that really drives me day to day.
What drives you more?
Enjoying life and enjoying my family and having close friends and relationships. At the end of the day, those are the things that are going to make you happy. What good is winning 15 majors but not having a relationship with your wife or your son? It’s no good at all.
Some commentators said you won the Masters despite being an average putter. Did that rile you?
I don’t pay much attention to what commentators say. You can drive yourself crazy listening to stuff. Those guys don’t know what you’re going through on and off the golf course, or how much work you’re putting into your game. I’m not going to kid anybody. My putting has never been the strongest part of my game. But it’s been something that I’ve learned to get really comfortable with, and over the last couple of years I’ve really started to feel good about it, to where I now stand over putts feeling like I’m going to make them.
Is there a specific moment that stands out from Sunday at Augusta?
Holing the putt on 11 to save par was instrumental in that victory. That hole has become probably the most difficult hole on the course. I hit a beautiful drive, and I bailed out on my second shot. I had a pretty good chip that just got caught up in the fringe, and then I holed a really good 15-footer to save par. That gave me that extra shot in the arm.
There’s a lot of talk that with Tiger out, the rest of the year’s majors were very different because players weren’t going up against the best player in the world.
I agree with that 100 percent. It is different. The things he achieves, and the regularity with which he achieves them, is just frightening. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it. He’s possibly going to be the greatest player of all time. For me to win a major with him playing, that’s a special feat.
How much was Tiger on your mind on Sunday?
Not at all. I was so focused that week on my own game and on the golf course, I wasn’t concerned about anybody else.
You were paired with Brandt Snedeker on Saturday and Sunday. What were your thoughts on his emotional reaction afterward (Snedeker broke down in front of reporters after the final round)?
I think it was very honest, and it was innocent. He was just letting everybody know how he felt. I don’t think he planned it that way. I think that it was an emotional week for him. He really wanted to win and play well. And he came real close. I definitely don’t think any less of him because he did that. It’s admirable. The guy was wearing his heart on his sleeve.
What’s one secret about Augusta that never gets talked about?
After you sign your card and you get all the formalities over with, they take you down to Butler Cabin. And obviously people weren’t 100 percent sure what size jacket I was, and neither was I. So they have a few different ones there for the winners to try on to see which one fits best.
What do you say to skeptics who say you’re a one-hit wonder as far as majors are concerned?
Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. And if that’s what they believe, then that’s up to them. I can’t start to take guys on one-on-one who don’t like me. I don’t have the time or energy for that. But I’ll tell you one thing — having one is better than none.
Fellow South African Gary Player, a hero of yours, has compared your swing to Ben Hogan’s. That’s got to be a lot of pressure.
It’s obviously flattering. Do I see myself as pure a ballstriker as Ben Hogan? No way. Not even on the same planet. Do I feel like I try to copy Ben Hogan? No.
Do you see yourself in the mold of a classic player like Hogan?
There are probably a few similarities. I think I don’t show too much emotion on the golf course. But do I profess to swing it like Hogan or know as much about the swing as Hogan did? No way.
But you see a similar personality?
Well, on the course. Off the course, I’m as easygoing as could be. On the course, what I’ve found is that I need to be in the moment and I need to be undistracted to play my best golf. Some horses run better with blinkers on. I run better with blinkers on rather than chatting with everybody and whistling and laughing.
Did you believe Player when he said some players were taking performance-enhancing drugs?
I don’t think I was getting the same information that he was. I don’t believe that there are players out there that are taking performance-enhancing drugs. I don’t see why a player would want to do that. I think athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs and human-growth hormone are very shortsighted because we don’t know what these things are going to do to our bodies 20 years from now.
Has Player given you any tips on how to snag the green jacket permanently?
No! He hasn’t. But seeing as I live in America, I might not have to. He was living in South Africa at the time, so he took it down there with him. But I’ll stick to the rules.
You had a benign tumor removed in late 2007 that doctors thought could’ve been cancerous. How did that scare change your perspective?
I went from winning a tournament the week before to lying in the hospital worrying about this tumor being extracted. So it was a huge wake-up call for me to realize that things can change pretty quickly. Initially it got me down because I started asking myself some pretty serious questions, like “Are you happy? Are you happy with your life? Are you happy with the person you are? Are you happy with all the things that you are doing?”
Did you ever think it was the end of your career?
I must say, I never really let any of those thoughts get into my mind. It happened so quickly, I didn’t really have time.
Do you think you’re the best South African on Tour right now?
That’s not a question I’m going to answer. Obviously Ernie and Retief have been around a long time. They have many victories under their belts. Ernie won this year. Rory’s been having a great few years playing really solid golf. Tim Clark is always there. So, there are a few of us out there. That’s for you guys to decide, not me.
Els essentially accused you of cheating for using a long putter a few years back, but you don’t use it anymore, right?
It was a belly-putter, and I only used it for two months. I was trying to create a feel, and I managed to win my second tournament, the Deutsche Bank TPC of Europe. We’ve always been friends. The thing he portrayed in the press is that he felt it was cheating. That’s his opinion, and I can’t change his opinion. It was a little disappointing to me that he had those feelings after I had just won what was at that point the biggest tournament of my life, especially when other guys had been winning tournaments with the long putter and nothing was ever said. It was kind of a touchy subject for a little while.
Some U.S. pros grumbled that you received your PGA Tour card only because you were on the Presidents Cup team. Did that bug you?
To be honest, it was a moot point to begin with, so if you can, please set the record straight: I made enough money in 2005 to get my Tour card on my own in 12 events. I don’t think the players understood that those [World Golf Championship events] get added. If you’re not a member and you aren’t able to play 15 tournaments but you make more than the 125th person on the money list with those WGC tournaments included, you become a member, or you are eligible to become a member. I didn’t appreciate that people thought I got onto the Tour because I got a Presidents Cup pick. I earned my way onto the Tour. It was quite annoying, because I didn’t want people to think I got a free pass.
You’re a drummer and a guitarist. Are you any good?
I’m a better drummer than guitarist. The guitar I’m still kind of learning. But the drums kind of go down our family. My dad played in a band, my brother played in a band and two of my mother’s brothers played in bands.
Is that what you’d be doing if you weren’t a golfer?
Absolutely. I’ve been very lucky because about four years ago, I played with Tico Torres, the drummer for Bon Jovi. I became quite friendly with him through the shared passions of golf and drumming. I’ve got a whole music room in my house with all sorts of memorabilia, signed guitars by different bands, pictures that inspire me. It’s a big part of my life.
What’s your drumming handicap?
Probably about the same as Tico’s as a golfer — 10 or 12.
How did you meet your wife, Carmenita?
I was 14, she was 15, and we started dating shortly after that. She started traveling with me in 2000, 2001, and we got married about four years ago. She grew up in a town kind of adjacent to mine.
If someone said that you can’t see her for a year, or you can’t play golf for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
I’d get rid of the golf. Like I said, as I’ve matured and gotten married and had a son and with the whole tumor scare, I’ve definitely come to realize that golf does not make me happy. Let me put it to you this way — golf does make me happy because I love the game, and I enjoy playing the game. So when I’m playing the game, I’m happy. As far as achieving in golf goes — I have a lot bigger things to answer to than just worrying about my golf score.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading an incredible book called Chasing Daylight, which is about a CEO who basically starts getting some aches and pains and goes to the doctor and gets told he has 90 days to live. So this guy basically sees it more as a blessing that he knows he has 90 days to live, and how he’s going to maximize those 90 days.
That sounds like what you went through with the tumor scare.
Maybe, but probably not quite that dramatic. Obviously the guys had to take the tumor out and then test it to see if it was cancerous or not. Whereas with this guy, they knew straight away that that was it for him. But there is a parallel there about perspectives changing.
So now that you’ve won a major, what are your goals?
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to win major championships. As golfers, that’s how we are measured. So, at the end of your career, that’s how people are going to remember you. Obviously, I’m just ecstatic about getting one under my belt because it would’ve been a shame to go through my career and not win one. That would’ve been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that weren’t really worthwhile. For me, the focus is all about the majors and just trying to play as well as I can in those big events. But I still don’t think I’m going to reach my peak until my thirties.