Immelman Holds Off Woods

South African Leads the Entire Way En Route to His First Masters Title

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.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008; Page E01

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 13 -- He grew up not far from the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of South Africa, and on a treacherous, wind-blown course thousands of miles away, Trevor Immelman turned the collective hopes of his countrymen into riveting reality in Sunday's final round of the 72nd Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

On an afternoon of billowing breezes gusting to 25 mph Immelman held off his jangling nerves and the lurking specter of Tiger Woods. But the greatest player in the game, who never found his putting stroke this week, was foiled in his attempt at a 14th major championship and had to settle for his second straight runner-up finish in this event.

Immelman survived a brutally difficult day beneath the towering Georgia pines to claim his first major less than four months after he survived major surgery last Dec. 18 to remove a benign tumor on his diaphragm. He needed several months to regain his health and his game, and his best finish this season before Sunday was a tie for 40th place.

"I had to start from zero again," said Immelman, who earned $1.35 million and a lifetime exemption into this event. "I knew I was improving week after week, and here I am, after missing the cut last week [in Houston], the Masters champion. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."

With a nerve-racking final round of 3-over 75 that included a late double bogey with a tee shot into the water at the 170-yard 16th hole, Immelman finished at 8-under-par 280 for a three-shot victory over Woods (72--283), who made a 15-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole. Woods waved his hand in disgust when the ball dove into the cup, as if to say, "Where was that putting stroke when I really needed it?"

"I knew he was going to make a run," Immelman said. "I was just trying to be strong . . . play my own game and hope it would be enough."

Immelman, 28, became the first South African Masters champion since Gary Player, a three-time winner, collected his third green jacket in 1978, a year before Immelman was born. Like every South African kid with a passion for golf, Immelman counted Player among his boyhood heroes.

Earlier this week, Player said of Immelman: "His swing is absolutely the closest that I have seen to Ben Hogan, and I've always thought that Hogan was the best striker of the ball from tee to green that I ever saw. The closest to Ben Hogan's swing is Trevor Immelman. Marvelous."

Player was traveling to the Middle East and was not on the grounds to witness Immelman's victory, but he left his protégé a voice mail message retrieved Saturday night. It ended with the Hall of Fame golfer telling him, "There will be bad breaks, and I know you're going to win."

There were bad breaks for a number of players who started the day high on the leader board. Immelman's playing partner, Brandt Snedeker, in his first Masters as a professional, self-destructed with a run of four bogeys in six holes on the back nine, including a second shot in the water at the 510-yard 13th hole. Snedeker (77--284), tied for third with Stewart Cink (72), who began with back-to-back birdies, only to fall out of contention with three straight bogeys starting at the ninth hole.

Steve Flesch, the 40-year-old journeyman from Kentucky, was at 8 under for the tournament through his first 11 holes Sunday. But a poorly struck 8-iron plunked into Rae's Creek fronting the 155-yard 12th hole and resulted in a double bogey, followed by four more bogeys in his last five holes.

Woods clearly was the most frustrated man in the field. He had talked boldly earlier in the week about a possible Grand Slam being within reach this season, and now Immelman is the only man with a chance this year to achieve Woods's lofty goal.

Woods admitted afterward he'd made a mistake publicly speaking about the Slam, saying: "I learned my lesson there with the press. I'm not going to say anything. It's just one of those things when you're out there playing, you couldn't care less. You're trying to win a golf tournament . . . trying to put yourself in position, which I did. I just didn't make the putts I needed to make this entire week."

Woods looked as if he was about to make a glorious back-nine run when he holed out a 50-foot birdie putt at the 505-yard par-4 11th hole to get within five shots of the lead. Immelman insisted he never heard the thunderous roar that accompanied Woods's putt as Immelman stood back on the 11th tee. And Immelman had enough composure to save a stunning par himself at the same hole with a 25-foot putt from just off the green.

Woods never was able to capitalize on that jolt of energy at 11. Even worse, at the 510-yard 13th, he pulled a four-foot birdie putt that would have cut Immelman's lead to four.

When Woods three-putted from 45 feet for a bogey after a poor second shot at the 440-yard 14th, Immelman stuck a third-shot wedge to within two feet of the 13th hole for a brilliant birdie that gave him a six-shot lead over Woods, who didn't make another birdie until that last putt at 18. It gave him solo second, his fifth runner-up finish in major championships since turning professional late in the 1996 season.

"We're all playing under difficult conditions, and we figured if we shot something in the 60s, we're going to be right there with a chance to win," Woods said. "Try to put a lot of pressure on Trevor up there. It turns out that would have been the case. But I didn't do my part."

Immelman came to the 16th still leading Snedeker by five and Woods by six when he yanked his tee shot dead left into the pond, an inexplicable error with much more bail-out room on the right. He went to the drop area, about 148 yards from the flag, for a third-shot 9-iron that left him with a 25-foot bogey putt, and he missed that for his only double bogey of the tournament.

Still, he was hardly shaken with his lead down to four and two to play.

"I didn't look at a leader board all day," he said. "I felt that even though I'd made a double, people were still clapping for me."

There was a bit more suspense at the 440-yard 17th when Immelman, with a four-stroke lead over Woods, hit a second shot into a greenside bunker. But he blasted to within three feet and saved par to stay at 8-under. Up ahead, Woods had made his birdie at the 72nd hole, leaving Immelman a three-shot cushion as he walked to the 18th tee.

His down-the-middle drive landed in a divot out in the fairway, but he hit his second shot safely to within 25 feet of the cup and easily two-putted from there for the victory, his second on the PGA Tour after prevailing at the Western Open in 2006.

"This has been the ultimate roller-coaster ride," Immelman said. "And I hate roller coasters."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company