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72nd Masters | Round 2

Immelman nearing par on his potential

Trevor Immelman was cut open in December to have a benign tumor removed. Now he’s atop the Masters.

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Trevor Immelman was cut open in December to have a benign tumor removed. Now he’s atop the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — If you wish, you can think of his story as fate. To some, Trevor Immelman was meant to perch on top of the Masters' leaderboard.

A glance at his swing, a look at his game, and the conversations about what Immelman might accomplish at Augusta National would begin. Gary Player said years ago that Immelman had a game to measure up to the Masters. Others said it before that.

If you prefer, you can think of his story as promise. After all, Immelman was 5 when he informed his father that he planned to become the finest golfer in the world.

He was a prodigy, a talented kid who was obsessed with golf from the day he tagged along with older brother Mike. He would stay up all hours to watch the Masters on television, trying to get a view of Jack Nicklaus or Player before he drifted off to sleep.

The truth of it, however, is that fate doesn't play golf and that the Masters is tougher to deliver than a child's promise. The real story about Immelman is one of resiliency, one of determination and one of a man finally realizing expectations.

Two chapters in, it looks like a pretty good tale.

For the second straight day, Immelman, 28, treated the Masters like just another practice round in Sun City. He hung up his second straight 68 on Friday, and he played so well that at any moment, you suspected his clubs might burst into flame. And you wondered: Is everyone sure they don't have tigers in South Africa?

Watching Immelman, it is hard to believe that only 3½ months ago, he lay in a hospital bed in his hometown of Somerset, South Africa. The morphine numbed most of his concerns, but for five days, family and friends worried whether the tumor inside him might be cancerous.

Immelman had surgery on Dec. 18, and the golf-ball-sized growth on his diaphragm turned out to be benign.

"I don't think I was really knowing what was going on at that point," he said. "They were pumping me so full of stuff just to try and get over the pain that I don't think it really mattered what the result was.

"Obviously, my family was real nervous. We were thrilled when we found out that it was just some rare type of benign tumor."

Still, it doesn't exactly help the golf swing when the doctors slice up a man's torso. For two weeks, Immelman couldn't walk.

"It's a little bit degrading when you have other people washing you morning and night."

For six weeks, Immelman was unable to play golf. He now lives in Orlando's Lake Nona community, and the first day he skulled a few chips and putts. He came home and told his wife: "I don't know what's going on."

Even when Immelman began to tour again, he admits, it took some time before his surgery left his mind. "The first few weeks out, every tweak and every ache, my mind was wandering," said Immelman, who has one top-25 finish in eight starts. "But at this point, not at all. I feel normal."

In a way, it was like rebuilding a golfer. Only this time, they left out the "underachiever" part.

For some time, that has been part of the talk when it came to Immelman, too. He was one of those cursed-by-talent players, a player whose resume didn't match his talent.

"First of all, let me say this about Trevor Immelman," Player, a fellow South African, said Friday. "His swing is absolutely the closest thing I've seen to Ben Hogan, and I always thought that Hogan was the best striker of the ball from tee to green that I ever saw. The closest to that is Trevor."

Such is his potential. And say this for Immelman. They didn't cut out his passion.

"I see him on the range at Nona, and he's grinding for hours," said Ian Poulter, his buddy. "I think it was a shock to everyone he had to go in for surgery. He's bounced back pretty quickly. It shows how committed he is to getting fit and practicing hard."

Sometimes, a health scare can jolt one's perspective. With Immelman, it reaffirmed what he had known long ago. The guy likes golf.

"All I've ever wanted to do was win golf tournaments," Immelman said. "So I felt it was just a speed bump, you know, because I wanted to keep going. But I realized that it can get taken away from you real fast. I feel like I've been loaned a talent, and I'm going to try to do as well as I can."

Does that mean Immelman can hang on? History is against him. A first-round leader hasn't won the Masters since Ben Crenshaw in 1984.

Still, there is something about the way Immelman is playing that hints maybe he has a chance.

As they say in golf, once you survive the cut, you've got a chance.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.

Immelman nearing par on his potential 04/11/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 12, 2008 7:48am]

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