Immelman Takes A Healthy Position

John Feinstein shares his Masters knowledge.
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 11 -- There were times less than five months ago when Trevor Immelman was lying on a hospital bed back home in South Africa and wondering if he would ever again be able to play competitive golf. Birdies and bogeys were no longer an issue. The tumor his doctors had found on his diaphragm was far more terrifying than any 35-foot putt.

Major surgery indicated the growth was benign, and Immelman slowly began to work his body and his swing back into shape. And while his best finish so far this season was a pedestrian tie for 40th at the CA Championship at Doral three weeks ago, he has rounded into splendid form, at least in the opening 36 holes of the 72nd Masters at Augusta National.

With birdies on his final two holes for a second straight 4-under 68, Immelman was at 8-under 136 and held the outright lead entering the weekend. He opened a one-shot advantage over American Brandt Snedeker (68 -- 137), who also birdied 17 and 18, and was three strokes clear of a group that included two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson (68 -- 139). Mickelson birdied two of his first three holes and pulled back into contention for his third title here in the last five years.

"To shoot two 68s in the first two days is probably beyond my expectations," Immelman said. "I'm pretty thrilled right now."

Much later in the day, Tiger Woods provided early and late thrills when he began with a miracle birdie from the right trees at the 455-yard first hole and ended it with an equally improbable par out of the woods at the 465-yard 18th. The No. 1 player in the world was unable to make much headway in between, but his 71 left him at 1-under 143 and seven shots back.

The birdie at the first had to be seen to be believed. He blocked his drive to the right, and it landed on pine straw with several towering trees blocking his path to the green. But Woods said he saw a gap over the top and lofted his wedge shot high, avoiding branch and pine cone. The ball landed softly about four feet from the pin and stopped about 10 feet away. He made the birdie putt and seemed to be on his way.

But a chunked chip on his third shot at the 575-yard No. 2 found a bunker, and he could not get up and down to save par. A missed four-footer at the 495-yard No. 10 pushed him back to 1 over, but Woods rescued his round with an 18-inch birdie putt at the 17th and a 10-foot par putt at 18, when he drove in the trees down the right side and his third shot from the 10th fairway hit playing partner Stuart Appleby's ball on the green.

Woods's shot was spinning back to the hole before it made contact and might have had a chance to go in for birdie, or at least a tap-in par. But he had no complaints.

"Oh well, I made my four," he said, smiling. "I'm still in good shape. I'm obviously seven back and I need to play well, stay patient. . . . It was nice to end up under par for the tournament. Seven back on this course . . . you can make it up. . . . This golf course, anything can happen."

Mickelson made it happen with a bogey-free round on an afternoon when he made a number of par putts from the four- to six-foot range. His most spectacular play came at the 570-yard, uphill No. 8, when he left his second shot 3-wood about 20 yards left of the pin, with a high mound in front of him and not much green to work with.

Mickelson could not even see the flag when he took his full swing and lofted the ball with one of his patented flop shots. The ball thudded down on the putting surface and trickled to a stop about 10 feet from the cup, and he made the curling downhill putt for his third birdie of the front nine. He managed only one more on the back, knocking in a 30-footer at No. 17, and was tied for third with fellow lefty Steve Flesch (67) and Englishman Ian Poulter (69).

"I would rather be leading," Mickelson said. "But I've hit the ball well, and I've been playing well. I'm only a couple of shots off the lead, and I'll be able to play late in the afternoon Saturday, and hopefully Sunday, too."

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