Trevor Immelman’s second green jacket may not be quite as prestigious as his first; but it could prove just as significant. “The people who run the Hotel Fitness Championship always present a green jacket to the winner,” says the 34-year-old. “This one is a little darker than Augusta’s version and, if I’m honest, it was a little bit baggy on me. But believe me, I was glad to put it on.” No wonder. Immelman’s Buy.com Tour win last September – his first win of any kind since the 2008 Masters, and a victory that guaranteed playing privileges for the 2014 PGA Tour – came within days of his five-year exemption for winning the Masters running out.
After finishing the 2013 PGA Tour in 141st spot – and watching his colleagues head off to the lucrative FedEx Cup play-offs – Immelman had no option other than to compete in the corresponding four-event series on the second tier of American golf. It was a last, desperate attempt to regain his card for 2014.
“I was feeling under pressure throughout the second half of 2013,” Immelman recalls. “I just wasn’t making enough putts, enough birdies. I needed a top-5 finish in the last event; I started well, but fell away. So I had a week off, and somehow, got into the right mindset for the Buy.com play-offs. I felt really comfortable that week, like my old self. I wondered how I’d react if I had the chance to win again, but it felt great. On the final day of the Hotel Fitness, I parred the 1st, eagled the 2nd, birdied the 5th, and hung on to win by a shot. It was perfect timing… and a tremendous relief.”
As he headed up Magnolia Lane on a frigid April Sunday morning in 2008, armed with a two-shot Masters lead, Immelman could scarcely have imagined such a future. The 75 he would go on to shoot sounds disastrous, but it actually allowed him to pull a further shot away from the field as the day unfolded. That score remains in a tie for the highest final round by a winner at the Masters.
“That stat is skewed,” Immelman asserts. “It was a brutal day, cold and windy, and only four out of the whole field broke par. The field’s average score was 74.67. I think the lowest score was Miguel Angel Jimenez with a 68, and I believe he was in the second group out.”
Almost six years later, Immelman says he can remember everything about that week, and a last day that would turn into a victory procession. “It was an incredible week in terms of the clarity and calmness I had. There were rain delays, bad weather coming in, everyone was talking about the speed of the greens and how hard it was going to be. But nothing bothered me that week. Even when I hit it into the water on 16, I didn’t even flinch. I just went to the drop zone, wedged on and two-putted for a five. There was not a flicker, absolutely nothing. It was amazing from that standpoint.”
On that 16th tee, Immelman actually held a six-shot lead – though he didn’t realise it. “I never look at leaderboards,” he reveals. “I never want to know because earlier in my career it changed my game plan. When I was in the lead, I played too defensively and screwed it up; and when I was behind, I played too aggressively and screwed it up. I just wanted to execute my game plan and hope that was enough.”
Augusta, though, has a knack of rendering your blinkers transparent. At the par-5 15th, Immelman pitched to 8ft. As he was walking around the lake to the green, everyone stood up and started applauding. “Generally they only do that for past champions, and I thought it was a bit weird,” he remembers.
“Then on 16 they stood up and applauded, even though I’d just made double-bogey. I guessed I must still be leading. But I still didn’t know the scores until I’d found the 18th green, and I asked my caddie how we were doing. He said, ‘We’re three ahead.’ I said, ‘Are you telling me I can three-putt and still win?’ ‘No,’ he smiled. ‘I’m telling you that you can four-putt and still win.’”
In the event, Immelman needed only two. His victory made him the first South African Masters Champion since his boyhood idol Gary Player, three decades earlier. Aged just 28, and with a swing Player himself had compared to Ben Hogan’s, he seemed destined for the very top of world golf. But then, practising just eight weeks after his maiden major win, Immelman began to feel pain in his left wrist. The pain didn’t go away. “At times it was hurting so much that, from the top, my brain wouldn’t let me hit the ball,” Immelman recalls. “There were times when I didn’t think I would play again.”
Immelman now accepts that the year he spent competing with the wrist problem, and trusting in rest and physio, was about 12 months too long. “I started compensating and got into a stack of bad habits,” he confesses. By the summer of 2009, his world ranking having dropped from 15 to 86, he was forced to accept surgery as the only way forward. He went under the knife in October 2009.
The scar is two inches long, and features two dents where the surgeon went in. “They found cartilage tears, tendon issues and masses of inflammation. The inflammation was so bad that it was actually eroding a little bone called the triquetrum. They had to clean it all out and fix the cartilage on top. The operation was a success, though I couldn’t even putt for three months. It was 18 months before I felt completely clear of it.”
Immelman has no problem accounting for the cause of the problem. “I grew up in Cape Town, one of the windiest places on earth. I was a small kid who began playing aged five with my brother and his friends who were 10 years older than me. I was always trying to keep up, otherwise they wouldn’t let me play with them. So to get distance I had to trap it and hit it under the wind and have the ball run. I’ve always hit down on the ball, and I am a hard practiser. Hitting that many balls eventually took its toll.”
Given the severe damage caused by compressing a million golf balls, we might have expected Immelman to work on shallowing out his attack when he finally emerged, free from injury, in 2010. “It’s a fine line,” he shrugs. “When I’ve chased that in the past, I tend to get stuck behind the ball. I’m aware my driver launch angle – just eight degrees – is considered low, but I think chasing the perfect scenario that launch monitors encourage is a dangerous game to play.
“I think you need to understand your strengths and work with those. A strength of my game has been my iron play, and I think my tendency of trapping the ball is the reason. As long as my wrist is healthy, I’ll play the game this way.”
Though Immelman made 18 out of 24 cuts in 2011, he was struggling mentally. “I was trying to fix some of the bad tendencies I’d got into. To try that while competing against the world’s best, you have to be mentally tough to hang in there. I was getting beat up a lot. There were times when I wondered if I had what it took to get back to a high level. I was banging my head against the wall at times. It was tough.”
Immelman’s stats for 2012 and 2013 reveal just how tough. In those two seasons, he played in 48 events, making the cut in just 25 and recording one top 10 finish. It is fair to say his victory at the Hotel Fitness Championship was as unexpected as it was timely. But despite this ordinary run of results, and a lowly world ranking of 236, Immelman remains upbeat. Fair enough, at his rarefied level, the margins between a missed cut and a top-10 finish are agonisingly fine. But more than this, Immelman believes he is a better player than he was in 2008.
“I’m smarter, and the quality of my shots is better,” he insists. “The issue now is that the time I’ve invested in getting my long game back in order has taken its toll on my short game performance. The putting has been brutal. In 2013, I ranked 180th out of 200 in putting, which is never going to get it done.”
Improving his putting – the “missing ingredient to starting to gain confidence” – has become Immelman’s focus. And that crucial Buy.com win was one of several signs that it is turning round. He says, with some feeling, that he believes he is a month of solid play away from getting over the hump.
“Despite the problems I have endured, I kept telling myself I had two things going for me. First, I’m only 34, and I’ve always believed golfers play their best between 30 and 45. Second, I’ve proven half-a-dozen times that I can beat the best players.
“Even at my lowest of lows, I knew that somewhere in there the ability is there. The fun part is going to be to try to get that to come out again.”
What Immelman learned from Gary Player
“I first met Gary when I was five – and he has become another father figure for me. We always sit next to each other at the Masters Champions’ dinner and he always has advice for me. I don’t always agree, but most of the time he is spot-on.
In 2008 we played a practice round together, and on the 13th he stopped and said, ‘You know, you are playing well enough to win this week, but you have to believe it.’ Then on Saturday night, he left me a long message. One part was a tip about keeping my head still while putting. But it went on. ‘You can win tomorrow, but be ready for adversity. At some point you will make a mistake or do something silly. You have to be able to thrive on that, enjoy that moment of pressure. A lot of people can’t handle that moment.’
Gary always talks about mindset, mental toughness and enjoying adversity. He has taught me that it’s easy to have a great attitude when things are going your way. But if you can hang in there and be tough when things are going against you, that is the mark of a champion. I have no doubt that the reason he’s been such a great champion is because he was tougher than everybody. I wish I could be like that, and it is something I strive for.”