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Reigning Masters champion Trevor Immelman finds it's easier being in green as he prepares for PGA Tour's Transitions Championship

There's Trevor Immelman, black shirt, blue jeans, snakeskin shoes. On this night, he is a special guest of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa to drop the ceremonial first puck on Transitions Optical night, which happens to sponsor Immelman.

The hockey fans mustered their best golf clap, as if they might have heard of the guy but weren't sure how. Maybe if Immelman wore his green jacket, people would recognize the reigning Masters champion. Maybe it would click that this 5-foot-9, 170-pound golfer from South Africa held off world No. 1 Tiger Woods by three shots to win the biggest tournament of his life.

Immelman, 29, doesn't really care if people recognize him on the street; he just knows that green jacket hanging in his closet changed his life forever.

"I wear it every now and then, but it's not like I wear it everywhere," he said. "It's a pretty cool thing to show people. It's been an absolute thrill for me. It's created a lot of opportunities that wouldn't normally be there. It doesn't affect my life personally, but it's had a huge effect professionally."

When he heads for Augusta in April, Immelman will bring his jacket, which will be on display as long as there is a Masters.

But first, Immelman is using the Florida swing to hone his game. He is in the field this week at the Transitions Championship, and he is scheduled to play next week in Orlando. Sunday, he tied for 70th at the WGC CA Championship at Doral.

Immelman is in better shape this year than last year. In mid December 2007, he had surgery to remove a benign tumor behind his rib cage. He didn't return to competitive golf until February and even then gave no indication of becoming a Masters champ.

He finished 10-over par and tied for 65th in last year's PODS Championship at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor. His best finish before Augusta was a third-round ouster at the WGC Match Play Championship in Arizona. He missed four of eight cuts before the year's first major.

"I got a late start to the season," he said. "In the run up to the Masters, I felt my game was coming together, but I wasn't putting up the numbers. I was starting to feel good about it, but I had no expectations coming into the event. It helped me to have that mind-set. I didn't get caught up in the hype. Once I got it kicked off and got myself into the hunt, that's when I'm most comfortable."

And it helped his confidence tremendously when he held off Woods.

"Both the events I've won here in the States (Masters, 2006 Western Open), he's finished second," Immelman said. "He kicks my butt most of the time, but at least I've got those two victories over him. One day when I retire from the game, that's one thing I'll pay attention to. The guy will go down as the greatest player of our era. He'll probably break all the records that have stood for a long time. To have him finish second the year I won the Masters is something to be proud of."

In two appearances at Innisbrook, Immelman's best finish was 1 over and tied for 43rd in 2007.

But this season, he is healthy and brimming with confidence. And despite subpar results, he said he likes playing in Palm Harbor.

"It's one of those Florida courses where you have to be long and accurate," he said. "I like those kind of courses. I think most of the guys on tour really like the course. It's one that they keep wanting to come back to."

Rodney Page can be reached at (727) 893-8810, page@sptimes.com or golf@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Transitions Championship

What: A 72-hole PGA Tour event

When/where: Thursday-Sunday; Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, Palm Harbor

Purse: $5.4 million, winner's share, $972,000

FedEx Cup points: 3,513

Defending champion: Sean O'Hair

Qualifying: Today at Fox Hollow Golf Club, Trinity

Schedule: Today — Shelton Quarles Celebrity Pro-Am at Innisbrook. Tuesday — Professional practice rounds. Wednesday — Transitions Championship pro-am.

Tickets: Daily, $40 in advance; $55 at gate; weekly badge, $99. Patron Pak, two weekly patron badges, one lot parking pass $199. Copperhead Pak, two good any day clubhouse tickets, one daily parking pass, two rounds on Copperhead Course $199. Hooter's Owls Nest tickets $69 each. Fans 17 and younger free. Tickets available online at transitionschampionship.com or at area Publix.

College weekend: Students with valid student ID can buy admission tickets for half price Saturday and Sunday.

Parking: Daily lot No. 1 pass, $20; weekly lot No. 1, $50

TV: 3-6 p.m. Thursday, Golf Channel; 3-6 p.m. Friday, Golf Channel; 3-6 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 8; 3-6 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 8

Transitions Championship

When/where: Thursday-Sunday; Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, Palm Harbor

Reigning Masters champion Trevor Immelman finds it's easier being in green as he prepares for PGA Tour's Transitions Championship 03/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 1:00pm]

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