- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga.

Yesterday was a good day for the game of golf. A 28-year-old, Trevor Immelman, won a major championship, keeping Tiger Woods at arm’s distance and making big putts and huge shots when he had to. Does golf ever need a guy like that, a young guy who can go up against the greatest player in history and not break out in the hives — as so many others have.

Of course, some will say Immelman won the Masters on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, when he strung together rounds of 68-68-69 to build a two-shot lead over the field and a six-shot cushion over Woods. And there’s some truth to that. It certainly provided him with some hiccup room yesterday, the kind of breathing space every first-time major contender would love to have.

But let’s not sell the plucky South African short. Four-and-a-half hours of golf with Woods’ name looming on the leader board are never a stroll in the park. And there were several stages when things could have gotten much more interesting — had, say, Tiger made the putts he usually makes and Immelman made the mistakes even the most experienced pros have made in these situations.

But the kid clearly has something. You’d have to have something to — while still in your 20s — lead a major from beginning to end. Were it not for a loose tee shot at 16 that landed in the water, Immelman would have won by the extra-large margin of five strokes.

But then, this is a fellow who had a benign tumor removed from his chest in December, spent the first two months of the year recuperating and didn’t exactly tear up the tour when he returned. (His best finish was a tie for 17th in the Match Play.) For him to walk into Augusta National and play like he did, well, how can there be any question about his constitution, the iron content in his nerves?

“This has probably been the ultimate roller coaster ride — and I hate roller coaster rides,” Immelman said after smooching his lovely blond wife, Carminita, and playfully tossing 21-month-old Jacob in the air. “But here I am, after missing the cut last week [at Houston]: the Masters champion. Just the craziest thing I ever heard of.”

As he amply illustrated, though, the final round of a major comes down to innards as much as talent or luck or anything else. Some players can tolerate the heightened temperatures, and some run screaming from the kitchen. Immelman has now established himself as one of the select few, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here. After all, fellow twentysomethings Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia are still looking for their first major titles.

I mean, just look at the wreckage strewn about the course yesterday. Paul Casey, 7 under when he teed off, was the first to blow, losing six shots to par in the space of five holes. On the back nine, Steve Flesch, in second place at the time, went into a similar freefall from 8 under — the eventual winning score — to 2 under. Brandt Snedeker, meanwhile, sank slowly from 10 under (after an eagle at No. 2) to 4 under and a tie for third with Stewart Cink.

“A tough day out there,” an emotional Snedeker said between sniffles. “But that’s part of life, part of growing up.”

In fact, among the serious contenders at the start of the day, only Woods didn’t backslide. And by going nowhere, by shooting an even-par 72 for a 5-under total, he wound up alone in second — his third straight top-three finish here … and also the third straight year he hasn’t won.

Tiger doesn’t have much experience being a bridesmaid. Indeed, in majors, he has just four seconds to go with his 13 firsts. With his putter behaving the way it did, though — all week long — there was little chance of him claiming his fifth green jacket. His final round began with a missed 10-footer for birdie on No. 3 and a lip-out from two feet for bogey on No. 4 and didn’t get a whole lot better thereafter.

“I just couldn’t make putts,” he said. “For some reason, on the longer putts I was great, but on the shorter putts I kept dragging my blade and wasn’t getting through the ball.”

If it was anybody but Tiger Woods, you might accuse him of coming down with a temporary case of the yips. But in this instance, it was just another reminder that Augusta, in its latest incarnation, no longer bends to Tiger’s will. He continues to play it as well as anybody, but the 65s and 66s he used to be able to summon on command have eluded him since 2005, the year of his last Masters victory.

As for Immelman, maybe he can hop off the roller coaster now. His health is good, his swing is better and both of his PGA Tour titles — the other being the 2006 Western Open — have come with Woods right on his heels. At any rate, the next time he wins a tournament, you figure, no one will say, “Craziest thing I ever heard of.”


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