Immelman leads from front to win Masters

AS IF the nerves and pressure of securing the first major title of his career were not enough to contend with, the addition of a gusting wind and quickening greens at Augusta yesterday made life devilishly complicated for Trevor Immelman as he became the first South African in 30 years to win the Masters.

The slippery conditions were so treacherous that the 2008 tournament resembled a giant game of snakes and ladders in which every advance seemed to be countered by a calamity of tumbles. Immelman, who had coped with the lead or a share of the top spot since Thursday, was steadier than any of his rivals on a day when par was glorious.

Signing for 75 and 280, eight under par, Immelman even had enough leeway near the end to survive a few wobbles and close out the competition. His nearest rival, Tiger Woods, finished three shots adrift. The measure of the South African's achievement was that he became the first player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 to lead the Masters from first to last.

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"It was so tough," recalled the new champion. "I was trying to be tough myself and hang in there. There was a disaster waiting to happen around every corner. I got a message from Gary Player who told me to believe in myself. That meant so much."

In charge of a major going into the back nine for the first time, Immelman acknowledged he hardly knew what to expect. When he holed a notable par-saving putt on the ninth green, however, his sense of conviction was enhanced. As long as he didn't make any huge gaffes, Immelman wasn't going to be caught. Still, like everyone else, he slipped occasionally. His tee shot on the 12th was long. The leader made bogey and his advantage was trimmed. The South African also visited the pond at the short 16th and racked up a double. When he was bunkered at the 17th, the up and down for par came as a mighty relief. He found a huge divot on the 18th fairway but made light of the inconvenience. The bonus for Immelman was that everyone else was shipping strokes at a swifter rate. Brandt Snedeker, who started the day at nine under, carded 77 and fell back to a share of third. Steve Flesch imploded on the back nine. And a birdie from Stewart Cink on the 16th was good enough to help the even-keeled American Ryder Cup player finish in the top three. Padraig Harrington was fifth but found little solace in a high finish.

Serendipity has been woven into the scripts for the Masters for so long that Immelman would not have been human if he didn't spy a connection between his own triumph and the occasion of compatriot Player's record-breaking 51st appearance here. Immelman has known Player since he was five years old. There's a bond of respect between the last African to win the Masters and the latest champion from that continent.

While Player declines to take any credit for Immelman's emergence as a player worthy of the major company of Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, the veteran sees a comparison with another Augusta legend. "Trevor's swing is the closest I've seen to Ben Hogan," ventured Player. "And I always thought that Hogan was the best striker of a ball from tee to green that I've ever seen."

Certainly, Immelman's ball striking in the wind was less prone to the quirks of swirling fortune than his rivals. With a low centre of gravity, Immelman was steady over the opening holes after a bogey at the first and kept his nose in front of the pack. He birdied the fifth and gave one back on the eighth. Otherwise, he was in control.

While the British challenge was cast away on the breeze – Lee Westwood, in a share of 11th, eclipsed both Paul Casey and Ian Poulter who were mired by mistakes – the expected charge from Tiger Woods, 72 for five under, didn't materialise until the end because of a barrage of missed short putts. "I hit the ball well enough all week to put pressure on Trevor but I just didn't hole the putts," he rued. "I didn't do my job."

Conditions in terms of distance control were so tricky that not even the world No 1 could press the accelerator and narrow the gap between his own position and Immelman through aggressive golf. At an event preceded by speculation about a potential grand slam season, Woods fell at the first hurdle. Slow out of the blocks on Thursday and Friday, Tiger's belated injection of pace on Saturday proved insufficient when the weather made matching par a feat of endurance. That said, Tiger did hole a gigantic putt on the 11th and a fine birdie effort on the last. In other words, he remained alert enough to pick off the wounded. But this wasn't a major where the man at the top was about to fall on his own sword.

Immelman spilled a shot on the first hole while Woods was bunkered at the second and failed to make birdie. Given that the par 5 was playing downwind and should have been within eagle range for the world No 1, Tiger's failure to better par and send a message of intent to the rest of the field was a turning point.

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After executing a lovely sand shot on the fourth, Tiger missed a short putt for par. Woods didn't read the lines as astutely as he usually does and the long putt which died on the lip of the fourth confirmed this wasn't destined to be his day. In the end, perhaps, his hopes of the slam were undone by an unduly cautious start.

The player who ignited the first rumbling roar of the afternoon was Snedeker when he located the putting surface at the second. His 35 foot putt for eagle, which moved off the green and back on again, was exhilarating. He briefly matched Immelman but took 39 to the turn and continued to squander shots.

All the contenders faced a sapping test of patience. For Casey, the challenge was to prove his mettle. Bunkered at the second, the long hitter neglected an early opportunity to move forward before engaging reverse. Starting the final round on seven under, Casey was six shots worse off on the 12th.

Casey's collapse began when he left his first wedge shot in the bunker at the par 3 fourth. The Englishman took two to escape from the sand and ran up a double. He then went into a tail-spin. Between the fourth and the ninth, he added four bogeys to his initial double. Meanwhile, Justin Rose, the first round leader, blamed putting woes for his collapse to seven over.

Having looked like a contender when he began with some fine golf over the opening 36 holes, Poulter, 78 for four over, was another Englishman who couldn't get the job done. After returning to the first page of the leaderboard when he birdied the second, Poulter fell into a black hole of mistakes from which he could find no escape.

After dropping a shot at the third and doubling the fifth, Poulter's fate on the short sixth was typical of his misfortune. With the pin placed front left on the par 3, the Englishman missed the green on the left and hit a poor chip onto the upper tier of the putting surface. With 35 feet to the hole, he three-putted and ran up 5.

There was more bad news to come with doubles on the seventh and 11th and a bogey at the 12th. In 11 holes he'd shed nine shots. His confidence frayed, Poulter cut a forlorn figure.

The players of substance who made moved in the right direction were Padraig Harrington and Stewart Cink, 72 for 284. The Open champion's chip hit the flag at the second and tapped in for birdie. At the third his approach spun back to five feet and the Irishman carded 72 for a share of fifth. Robert Karlsson, thanks to an eagle at the 15th, clambered up to eighth while Phil Mickelson's 72 for 286 was another stalwart effort.


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Completed totals at The Masters, Augusta National, Georgia. US unless stated, par 72


Trevor Immelman (Rsa) 68 68 69 75


Tiger Woods 72 71 68 72


Stewart Cink 72 69 71 72

Brandt Snedeker 69 68 70 77


Phil Mickelson 71 68 75 72

Padraig Harrington (Ire) 74 71 69 72

Steve Flesch 72 67 69 78


Robert Karlsson (Swe) 70 73 71 73

Andres Romero (Arg) 72 72 70 73

Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa) 77 70 72 68


Paul Casey 71 69 69 79

Nick Watney 75 70 72 71

Lee Westwood (Eng) 69 73 73 73


Vijay Singh (Fij) 72 71 72 74

Sean O'Hair 72 71 71 75

Stuart Appleby (Aus) 76 70 72 71


Mike Weir (Can) 73 68 75 74

Retief Goosen (Rsa) 71 71 72 76

Henrik Stenson (Swe) 74 72 72 72


Justin Leonard 72 74 72 73

Bubba Watson 74 71 73 73

Brian Bateman 69 76 72 74

Zach Johnson 70 76 68 77

Boo Weekley 72 74 68 77


Jeev Milkha Singh (Ind) 71 74 72 75

Arron Oberholser 71 70 74 77

J.B. Holmes 73 70 73 76

Adam Scott (Aus) 75 71 70 76

Ian Poulter (Eng) 70 69 75 78

Angel Cabrera (Arg) 73 72 73 74

Stephen Ames (Can) 70 70 77 75

Richard Sterne (Rsa) 73 72 73 74


Jim Furyk 70 73 73 77

Nick Dougherty (Eng) 74 69 74 76

Heath Slocum 71 76 77 69


Justin Rose (Eng) 68 78 73 76

Todd Hamilton 74 73 75 73

Johnson Wagner 72 74 74 75


Niclas Fasth (Swe) 75 70 76 75

Geoff Ogilvy (Aus) 75 71 76 74


KJ Choi (Kor) 72 75 78 73


Robert Allenby (Aus) 72 74 72 81

David Toms 73 74 72 80


Ian Woosnam (Wal) 75 71 76 78


Sandy Lyle (Sco) 72 75 78 77