Woods backs Immelman 'to stay around' in major league

Rather like that cleaning lady and the Queen's robe, there is something about a Green Jacket that can, very fleetingly, make a golfer look like something he plainly is not. So, in the wake of the Butler Cabin fitting, the plaudits and the promises of a glittering future ring out and very soon afterwards Mr Opportunity goes back to being plain old Mr Journeyman again.

It is fair to suggest, if more than ever so slightly risky, that the 2008 Masters victor will not fall into this category. The following statement may be as naff as it is well-worn, but Trevor Immelman should be a major player for many seasons to come.

Yesterday a certain Tiger Woods was putting forth the theory and this is not a man prone to false praise.

If it was not such a ridiculous notion, one could be forgiven for thinking the world No 1 sounded almost relieved that someone had denied his decidedly average play a 14th major in Sunday's torrid climax. "It was just a matter of when with Trevor," said Woods, reflecting on his three-shot loss to the South African. "He has all the talent in the world. He was always going to come through one day. I expect him to hang around."

Planet Golf, if not Planet Tiger, will praise the plus-foured almighty if Immelman does hang around. The cry of "where are the young champions?" has become hoarse in its desperation as the supposed challengers to Woods have aged as noticeably as their powers have waned. But here, at last, the game has a champion – not of the Zurich Classic or the Honda Classic, but a champion of the Masters – who has yet to reach his 30th year. Immelman is the only player still in his twenties with a major to his name. And there are many reasons for believing this 28-year-old multimillionaire is not yet done.

He has the technique, but then most of them do. Sure, his mentor Gary Player has compared Immelman's motion to Ben Hogan, but without the heart that swing don't mean a thing. It was the mental fortitude that truly set Immelman apart.

He was the first wire-to-wire to winner since Ray Floyd in 1976, although that year the conditions were relatively calm and Augusta inviting. Here, as the winds reached 25mph and this golfing heaven transformed itself into golfing hell, it must have felt to Immelman like being the frontrunner in the Pamplona Bull Run.

The qualities he displayed to remain upright impressed everyone, particularly his nerveless driving. As his playing partner, Brandt Snedeker, said: "I've played with very few golfers who can manage their emotions, manage their swing and manage the golf course that well. If Trevor had putted great, it wouldn't have been anywhere in the ballpark of close. It's incredible after what he has been through."

Indeed, his last 12 months will have seemed credible only to avid viewers of ER. In 2007 he arrived at the Masters with a stomach bug that wreaked enough intestinal damage to land him on an intravenous drip and effect a 22lb weight loss from his slender frame. It cost him at least a month of his season, but that sacrifice appeared so minor as he lay back in a hospital bed in December out of his senses on morphine.

At the South African Open he had suddenly felt unable to breathe because of a crushing pain in his ribcage and emergency surgery was undertaken to remove a tumour the size of a golf ball from his diaphragm. For two days his young wife, Carmenita, waited for the results of the tests as the father of their baby son, Jacob, drifted in and out of the terrifying reality. Blessedly, the verdict was "benign" and so the recovery from an operation that left a seven-inch scar down his back began.

Two weeks later he was walking; six weeks later he was chipping; a few days later he wasn't shanking; a few months later he had stopped believing that every twinge was the unthinkable. "This has been the ultimate roller coaster ride – and I hate roller coasters," acknowledged Immelman yesterday as he jetted back to his Orlando residence. "Four months ago, I win. A week later, I'm having an operation to remove a tumour. I get well in six weeks. I get back.

"I don't feel good with my game. I feel I have to start from zero again, get my game back a bit at a time. I miss cuts. But I keep improving. And now here I am after missing the cut last week in Houston, the Masters champion. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard."

It must have even sounded crazy as he left the course on Saturday night and picked up a voicemail from the hero he first met when he was five. "Mr Player's message gave me goosebumps," he 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. He said I'm just peeking too soon. He told me to just go out there and be strong through adversity. Because that adversity will come." Player finished off by telling his protégé: "I know you're going to win."

"I took that to heart," admitted Immelman. "And I'm obviously thankful for the message and I'm sure he's proud of me. After I turned pro, he was there for a kick in the butt when I wasn't playing well or when he saw something he didn't like. He's been like another type of a father for me. And to have somebody with that much experience on your side, giving you advice is just incredible."

There is plenty of the Player in Immelman, as his many friends on the European Tour have come to recognise. Originally, Britain's first collision with the Cape crusader was not at all edifying when, in 1997, he was heard in the Sandwich clubhouse just before the final of the Amateur Championship, blurting out in a phone call home, "I'll ring back after I've won".

Scotland's Craig Watson duly won 3&2, although the first impression of Immelman was soon contradicted when he was seen in tears the next day over newspaper reports damning him for his cockiness.

He vowed to reveal his true colours and in many respects Sunday was a reflective success for Britain as not only did Immelman stake out Augusta with his two neighbours, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, a fortnight ago, but more pertinently he learnt the professional trade from his base in Surrey at the turn of the century. "He's one of us," said Paul Casey, whose final-round 79 obliterated an event so full of promise. "And his victory is going to make me work even harder. Because he's one of my mates and is someone I want to beat."

Yet it was South Africa which was yesterday welcoming its first Masters winner since Player in 1978 and just their second in history. It has been a staggering litany of close calls for the Rainbow Nation, as five times in the previous seven stagings had one of their number fallen just short of golf's pot of gold. It is the identity of at least two of these runners-up which makes Immelman's success that bit more special. Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have four US Opens as well as an Open Championship between them, but have yet to prevail in the tournament rated more prestigiously in South Africa than any other. That is largely down to the golfer rated more prestigious on earth than any other; a golfer whom Immelman has now fended off down the stretch in his two American wins.

"I don't think it's easy to win a major in any era. But I'm playing in Tiger Woods' era," said Immelman. "The guy boggles my mind. To win 13 majors at 32 ... it's crazy to think how many he's going to get. For me to win while Tiger says he's at his peak, it's a hell of an achievement. I'm not sure if I'll ever get it done again. But I'll be trying." That is far from the craziest thing golf has ever heard.

Masters moneymakers

*Augusta prize-money

280 Trevor Immelman £685,800

283 Tiger Woods £411,500

284 Stewart Cink, Brandt Snedeker £221,000 each

286 Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Steve Flesch £139,000

287 Miguel Angel Jimenez, Robert Karlsson, Andres Romero, Nick Watney £110,500

288 Lee Westwood, Paul Casey £87,600

Selected:

292 Ian Poulter £27,900

293 Nick Dougherty £21,500

295 Justin Rose £18,700

300 Ian Woosnam £13,300

302 Sandy Lyle £12,600

*Trevor Immelman outplayed Tiger Woods in every department to win the 2008 Masters in Augusta. This is how they compared and how they ranked in the field:

Immelman v Woods Head to head at Augusta

*Driving distance

Immelman 287.5 yards average (4th), Woods 283.8 (11th)

*Driving accuracy

Immelman 85.7 per cent fairways hit (1st) Woods 67.9 per cent (30th)

*Greens in regulation

Immelman 70.8 per cent (2nd), Woods 69.4 per cent (7th)

*Sand saves

Immelman two out of three (11th), Woods one out of six (40th).

*Putts

Immelman 112 (4th), Woods 120 (29th).

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