- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Perspective is a 7-inch scar.

Less than four months ago, Trevor Immelman couldn’t have been further, literally or metaphorically, from the top of the Masters leader board.

He was lying in a hospital bed in South Africa, unable to walk, juiced up on morphine, awaiting the biopsy results on the tumor excised from his back on Dec. 18.

The year already had been a relative nightmare for the PGA Tour’s 2006 Rookie of the Year. Immelman had lost 22 pounds and an early chunk of the 2007 season to an intestinal parasite.

A week after he had finally recovered both his strength and his game to post his only victory of the season (Nedbank Challenge), his body betrayed him again. His back suddenly hurt so badly with each breath that he was forced to withdraw from the South African Open, his national championship and the event that heralded his professional breakthrough in 2003.

When the MRI revealed what the doctor described as a “golf ball-sized growth” pressing against his diaphragm, the irony wasn’t lost on Immelman, who turned 28 in the hospital while he pondered his career but mostly worried about his wife and first child, 18-month-old Jacob.

“Since we’ve had our first child, you know, you want to hang around and be part of his growing up. … So for those reasons, it was all scary,” said Immelman, reflecting on the past four months from atop the board with an 8-under 136 at the 72nd Masters. “It definitely gives you perspective because I went from winning a tournament to lying in a hospital bed waiting for results on a tumor. So it definitely made me realize that golf wasn’t my whole life.”

Even after the tumor was found to be benign, Immelman’s recovery was anything but instant.

“It took a couple of weeks before I could walk again,” said Immelman, who says he has showed his scar to virtually every inquisitive player on tour. “It was a couple of months that I was operating quite gingerly, and after that, I could kind of get back to it.”

Still, none of his results this season indicated he was capable of blistering Augusta National with consecutive 68s. In seven stroke-play starts before this week’s Masters, he had made only three cuts and finished no better than 40th (CA Championship).

But the Masters has a history of ferreting out the sentimental favorites in its fields and somehow pushing them to the fore (Ben Crenshaw in 1995 and Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999).

“The whole atmosphere, the mystique, the way the golf course is set up and prepared for us, everything about this tournament and this venue is what dreams are made of,” said Immelman, who has made only one bogey in two loops around the 7,445-yard, par-72 layout to take a one-stroke lead over Brandt Snedeker. “Every single player that’s here has dreamt of playing in this tournament.”

One of the youngest players ever to resort to the long putter, Immelman’s stroke on the planet’s most devilish greens has been brilliant thus far — he ranks fourth in putting with 27.0 a round. But will that historically balky stroke hold up over the weekend with the likes of two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson (5-under 139) nipping at his heels?

Lefty swiped favorite’s status from world No. 1 Tiger Woods with yesterday’s 68. While Woods (1-under 143) floundered once again, surprisingly posting his 11th consecutive round at Augusta National in the 70s, thanks to a pair of 3-putt bogeys (Nos. 6 and 10) and continued suspect iron play, Mickelson surged into a tie for third on the strength of a bogey-free round highlighted by a front-nine 33.

While Lefty is in perfect position to collect his third green jacket, Woods likely needs a pair of weekend scores in the 60s to contend for his 14th major title.

“Obviously, I’m seven back, but I’m in good shape,” said Woods, who salvaged what could have been a disastrous round with a point-blank birdie at the 17th and a miraculous up-and-down par save from the 10th fairway at the last. “Obviously, I’ve got to make a few more birdies and eliminate the mistakes. But I’ve just got to stay patient out there because anything can happen on this golf course and you can make up shots quickly.”

LEADER BOARD

Down — TIGER

Has serious ground to recover after yet another score in the 70s

Up — PHIL

The event’s de facto leader at 5 under, Lefty is now the favorite

Up — PINK

Only Ian Poulter has the guts to don pale pink spikes

Up — COMEBACKS

Trevor Immelman deserves a few smiles after unfortunate 2007

up — OUTSIDERS

Brandt Snedeker and Steve Flesch must not realize this is the Masters

QUOTABLE

“It was quite a fight to try and find out what was going on out there because the wind was swirling and I was right between clubs all day. It was just one of those days.”

— Tiger Woods, who struggled with his distance control on approach shots and 3-putted twice (Nos. 6 and 10)

“I definitely needed that putt on 18. But it’s been a long time, and it’s been fun.”

— Fred Couples, who had his streak of 23 consecutive made cuts at the Masters snapped

BY THE NUMBERS

71.73 Tiger Woods’ scoring average in his last 11 rounds at the Masters. The four-time champion hasn’t posted a score in the 60s at Augusta National since a 65 in the third round of the 2005 Masters.

45 Players who survived the weekend cut at 3 over or better. Among those missing the cut by a single stroke were Fred Couples (first missed cut in 24 starts), Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald.

-5 Steve Flesch’s score on Augusta National’s four par-5s. The 40-year-old lefty moved onto the leader board at 5 under thanks to a Friday-best 67 based on his birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie conquest of the layout’s three-shot holes (Nos. 2, 8, 13 and 15).

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