Skip to main content
Original Issue

Trevor's Turnaround

A medical scare behind him, and inspired by a phone call from countryman Gary Player, South Africa's Trevor Immelman won the Masters with a brilliant display of ball striking

THE SKY was nearly black when the brothers reached their seats on the practice green at Augusta National, awaiting the start of a ceremony that until this moment had existed only in their imaginations. In the back row sat Mark Immelman, his eyes moist and puffy with emotion, craning his neck over the Augusta National membership for a better view. In the front row sat his kid brother, Trevor, who at any moment would rise to his feet and slip into a green jacket like the one they used to see on television back home in Somerset, South Africa. ¶ They had always spent Masters Sunday that way, in front of the screen at midnight as Seve made birdie from the trees and Crenshaw curled in putts from all over and Jack was just being Jack. Now, on this indigo night, four months after a doctor cut into his back and stitched him together, 28-year-old Trevor Immelman ruled the grounds of the converted nursery, having toughed out a three-shot victory over Tiger Woods. ¶ Back in December, Immelman could not have imagined that his first major championship would be won on this cool, blustery Sunday. When he complained of stomach pain in the days after winning the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa, doctors discovered a mass on his diaphragm. They decided to remove the growth and perform a biopsy. It took 48 hours to get back the results, time that Immelman spent thinking about his life with his wife, Carminita, and their one-year-old son, Jacob. "I realized that it can get taken away from you real fast," Immelman says. "Since we've had our first child, you want to hang around and be part of his growing up and try and make sure he turns into an upstanding citizen of the world. For those reasons, it was all scary."

The biopsy came back negative, but Immelman still felt uncertain about his health and his profession. Whenever he felt a pain, he wondered if the tumor had returned. He missed the cut in four of his first eight starts this year on the PGA Tour, including in Houston the week before the Masters. His best finish in stroke play was a tie for 40th place at the CA Championship, and his World Ranking fell from 19th to 29th.

On Monday of Masters week, Immelman stood on the practice green with Mark, 37, his first golf instructor and the coach at Columbus (Ga.) State University. The brothers worked on Trevor's putting, focusing more on the quality of the stroke than on the ball dropping in the cup. Mark wasn't as concerned about his brother's overall ball-striking. Trevor first beat his older brother head-to-head when Mark was an All-America at Columbus State, forcing Mark then and there to reconsider his plans to be a tour pro. "He was 13," Mark says. "That's how I got into golf instruction. I was like [legendary teacher] Harvey Penick who saw Sam Snead. I saw my brother and that was it."

Even after Trevor opened with a pair of 68s to take a one-shot lead over Brandt Snedeker, something just didn't seem right. How could Immelman—and not Ernie Els or Retief Goosen—become the first South African since Gary Player to win the Masters? How could this young player, whose stroke had become so suspect several years ago that he had experimented with a belly putter, navigate Augusta National's treacherous greens on the weekend? Sure, Player was telling anyone who would listen that Immelman had the best swing in golf since Ben Hogan, but that could just have been national pride talking.

Two hours before their final-group pairing on Saturday, Immelman and Snedeker sat on the first floor of the clubhouse. Snedeker, the 2007 Tour rookie of the year and a Vanderbilt grad, was in the players' dining room watching the Florida Gators' spring football game. Immelman, the 2006 Tour rookie of the year, was around the corner in the lounge, sitting with his sports psychologist, Bob Rotella.

"You have been given this talent, discipline and dedication for a reason," Rotella recalls telling Immelman. "This is what you spend your whole life practicing for. Go out there and cherish it, embrace it and love it. Trust what you're doing, stay in the moment, never mind the scoreboard. Take care of you."

A little later, after Immelman and Snedeker had made their way to the course, the locker room attendants gathered around a television, studying these faces that belonged to neither Woods nor Phil Mickelson. They were most taken with Snedeker, the 27-year-old Nashville native with the boyish haircut and broad smile. "He just has that face that he could do a milk commercial," said one.

"When he gets ready to putt, he shakes his butt," observed another.

In 2007, at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, Snedeker had said how cool it was when Woods had congratulated him on his round of 61. At the time, Snedeker said he couldn't beat Woods, whether it was on the course or in a video game, but at the Masters he was holding his own against everybody. He thrived in the first two rounds while paired with his idol, Tom Watson, and even impressed the two-time Masters champion with his imagination and feel. Snedeker's family was having a rollicking time until Brandt bogeyed all three holes of Amen Corner on Saturday. "I died a thousand deaths, and they quit serving beer at four o'clock," older brother Haymes said.

Still, Snedeker closed out his third round with a grin, making birdie on three of his last five holes. With his 18th-hole birdie he stayed two shots behind Immelman and secured a spot in Sunday's final pairing. On his way to the clubhouse Snedeker caught a ride with an Augusta member on the back of a golf cart. When they zoomed by Steve Flesch, who was three strokes behind the leader, Snedeker called out, "Good playing, Lefty."

"You, too, Hot Rod," Flesch shot back.

Immelman had a quieter finish on Saturday. As he left the club, he retrieved a voice mail message from Player, whom he had first met when he was five years old. "It gave me goose bumps," Immelman said. "He told me that he believed in me and I need to believe in myself. And he told me I've got to keep my head a little quieter when I putt."

Lurking six shots back was Woods, but he headed straight to the practice green after his third-round 68, trying to jump-start a cold putting stroke before dark.

WOODS SAID he felt good about his stroke heading into the tournament, but for the third straight year it might have cost him a green jacket. In 2006 he said he wanted to snap his putter over his knee after coming up short to Mickelson. Last year his flat stick let him down in his pursuit of Zach Johnson. On Sunday, with a chance to apply pressure to Immelman, Woods kept missing putts to the left, including a lip-out of a short par putt at the par-3 4th. Woods described the feeling of dragging his blade through the hitting zone instead of releasing it freely. The result? He wasn't getting the proper overspin on his putts, especially on the short attempts. Still, Woods looked as though he would make a late charge when he buried a 70-foot bomb for birdie on number 11, causing the crowd in the clubhouse to stir anew. Butch Harmon, Woods's onetime teacher, walked over to a computer and studied the names on the leader board. "Before it's over, they're going to have to deal with him," Harmon said, and there was no doubt whom he was talking about.

Woods drove right into the trees on number 13, but despite a restricted backswing, he carved a shot off the pine needles, leaving himself a short iron into the par-5. He sent his ball past the pin and spun it back some five feet from the hole. A birdie seemed inevitable. Instead, Woods missed again, air-balling the cup left, and Immelman remained a comfortable five shots ahead.

"I didn't putt well all week," said Woods, who after winning three times at Augusta National from 1997 to 2002 has won just one of the last six Masters.

With Woods's statement before the season that winning the Grand Slam was definitely within reason, it was not far-fetched to wonder if he already considered the 2008 campaign a washout. He insisted he did not. "You feel deflated because you lost, but the very next day you're fired up about the U.S. Open," Woods said two days before the Masters. "Are you frustrated that you lost? Of course. You don't ever want to lose. I don't understand how you can like losing. But once this tournament is over, you start refocusing and getting your game ready for the next major." That would be the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where Woods has won six times as a pro.

Nevertheless, the arc of the golf season has changed, pivoting on Woods's errant putter and the steeliness of a 5'9", 170-pound golfer with his own warm feelings about Torrey Pines. It was there, in 1998, that Immelman won the U.S. Public Links championship, earning his first trip to the Masters.

"I've always dreamed about winning majors," Immelman says. "I'm definitely not going to sit back and go, 'O.K., I'm done,' if that's the answer you're looking for. I'm going to keep working hard and trying to make the most of what I've been given."

AT HOME and on the golf course in Somerset, Immelman was always tagging along with his older brother and his friends, asking questions and trying not to get left behind. Mark's message to him was clear: Keep up or you don't play with us. As Trevor made his way through Augusta's picturesque layout on Sunday, Mark said his mind turned to those moments the brothers shared. But first there was a title to win. After a shaky opening bogey, Immelman birdied the 5th hole, but he three-putted the 8th for bogey and had to drop a 20-foot putt from the fringe on number 11 to save par. Mike Weir, who has played on two Presidents Cup teams with Immelman, stood beneath the big oak tree outside the clubhouse, saying that the South African had the game to hold up in gusts of up to 25 miles per hour, and he was right.

Immelman would tempt the golf gods with a yanked tee shot into the water that led to a double bogey on the par-3 16th, but by then most of the danger had passed. He saved par from a greenside bunker on 17 to maintain his three-shot lead, and after peeling a drive down the middle of the 18th, he let out a sigh. The Immelman clan had moved to the walkway behind the green, directly in front of the scorer's shack. Mark kept rubbing his eyes as he stared down the hill, looking at his baby brother, who was dressed in a black outfit similar to the ones that Player made famous. After an eight-iron from a divot and two putts, Immelman flexed his muscles and looked up the walkway. There stood Carminita and their curly haired boy. Immelman's 75, the highest final round for a Masters champion since Arnold Palmer shot the same score in 1962, had been enough to beat the field. Snedeker, after a 77, buried his face in a towel to hide his tears.

After the green-jacket ceremony the Immelmans left the well-worn practice green and walked into Butler Cabin. Its back windows, bathed in yellow light, looked out onto a sublime par-3 course shrouded in darkness. Inside the cabin a new champion with a new jacket was lost in a round of hugs.

"It GAVE ME GOOSE BUMPS," Immelman said of Player's call. "He told me that he believed in me and I need to believe in myself."

Paired with his idol in the first two rounds, Snedeker impressed Tom Watson with his IMAGINATION AND FEEL.

"I've always dreamed about WINNING MAJORS," says Immelman. "I'm not going to sit back and go, 'O.K., I'm done.'"


Relive Gary Player's victory in the 1978 Masters.



Photograph by Robert Beck

SAND BLASTER Immelman all but sealed his three-shot victory with a par save from a greenside bunker at the 17th hole.



TEE TIME Immelman hit 48 of 56 fairways and recovered well when he went astray, never giving Woods a shot at the lead.



[See caption above]



ALSO-RANS On their final nines, Flesch (left) stumbled home in 42, while an emotional Snedeker lost his way with four bogeys.



[See caption above]



GETTING A GRIP After sharing a handshake with Snedeker walking up the 18th, Immelman celebrated with Carminita and Jacob.



[See caption above]