Immelman Proves to Be a Master at Dealing With Adversity

Trevor Immelman handles the wind and pressure of Augusta National and hangs on to win with a 3-over 75, matching the highest final round by a Masters champion.
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 14, 2008

On Saturday night, as he was leaving Augusta National, Trevor Immelman received a voice mail message from his lifelong hero and mentor Gary Player. The three-time Masters champion, who once carried the precocious 5-year-old Immelman on his shoulders, offered bits of standard advice: believe in yourself, hold your head still on putts. But Player, who competed in a record 51st straight Masters this week, knew exactly on what note to finish. With Immelman entering the final round with a two-shot lead and a chance to become the first South African to win the Masters since Player himself in 1978, the 72-year-old went straight to the core of his sport for his final words.

"Gary told me, 'Be strong through adversity, because adversity will come,' " Immelman said.

On Sunday morning, the first image Immelman saw "was the trees moving around in the wind. I knew it was going to be rough. . . . I told myself I was going to have to be tough."

By Sunday night, the 28-year-old, who began the week ranked 29th in the world, had fought those swirling winds, plus bad breaks and poor putting to win this Masters by three shots over a visibly frustrated Tiger Woods, who uncharacteristically did not cope with the same obstacles as well.

More than any sport, golf tears at the nerves and tortures the emotions, rather than bruising the body. Nobody hits you, yet the greatest players in the world, on devilishly capricious days such as this, walk off the course looking as battered as any Super Bowl loser. Even Tiger can look like he has been kicked in the guts by a Georgia mule.

Fortitude, at the deepest levels, is the virtue that is rewarded the most in pro golf. At the center of every round, and every career, is the notion that man must accept without question what golfers call "the rub of the green" -- as elegant and important a phrase as sports gives us. Bad luck, injury, sinfully malicious misfortune and long, inexplicable spells of miserable play are to be expected, endured and, eventually, overcome. In fact, a golfer's response to that rub of the green is what defines him.

Few players have, in just one 12-month period, illustrated that truth better than Immelman. At last year's Masters, he contracted a stomach parasite after arriving in Augusta and eventually lost 22 pounds; while subsisting on intravenous feedings and Immodium, Immelman refused to withdraw or deliberately miss the cut. Instead, he played all four days, performed as abysmally as you'd expect, finishing fourth from dead last (309) and said he was proud for sticking out the miserable week.

"Just a bad break. Nothing much," he said.

Little did he know this was mere preamble to a real rub of the green.

Just four months ago, days after winning an international event, he was diagnosed with a mysterious golf-ball-sized tumor on his diaphragm. Surgery on Dec. 18 proved it to be benign. But Immelman needed six weeks just to chip a golf ball again, and when he returned to the PGA Tour, he had to routinely pull up his shirt to show off the seven-inch scar on his right lower back to fellow players.

"Oh, yes, had to show it to everybody," he said. "Public indecency."

Actually, under the mandatory jock humor, it was misery.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company