Trevor Immelman Trevor Immelman holds off Tiger Woods to win first major at the Masters

As Trevor Immelman was leaving the grounds at Augusta National Golf Club Saturday night, he listened to a voicemail that he'll almost certainly remember for the rest of his life.

It was from fellow countryman Gary Player - the last South African to win the Masters. Immelman said Player's message told him that he had to leave Augusta, Ga., and wouldn't be there for Sunday's final round, but offered the 28 year old some encouraging words he could take with him as he slept on a two-shot lead Saturday night.

"He told me that he unfortunately had to leave - he's on his way to the Middle East to do something over there - and that he wouldn't be able to watch the coverage, but told me that he believed in me and I need to believe in myself," Immelman told reporters Sunday after his victory in the Masters. "He told me to just go out there and be strong through adversity, because he said that adversity would come today and I just had to deal with it.

"I took that all to heart and I'm obviously thankful for the message and I'm sure he's proud of me."

Indeed, Player must be. Despite windy conditions that permitted only four players to break par in the final round, Immelman shot a 3-over-par 75 and held on for a three-stroke victory over Tiger Woods. Playing the par-4 holes in 10 under for the tournament, Immelman finished at 8-under 280 to collect a $1.35 million paycheck - and more importantly - his first major tournament title.

Player, who won the last of his three green jackets in 1978, has been an inspiration to Immelman throughout his life. Immelman first met Player when he was five years old and said he's been fortunate to have the golfing great, one of five players to win a career Grand Slam, take interest in his career ever since.

"I think he realized that even at a young age, that I had so much passion for the game," Immelman said of Player. "And he kept in touch with me and he kept writing me notes and he kept answering my calls and my letters to him and he was always there for support and advice.

"After I turned pro, he was there for a kick in the butt when I wasn't playing well or when he saw something that he didn't like that I was doing. He's been kind of 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, and I'm very thankful for that."

Reached by telephone in Abu Dhabi, Player gave the Associated Press the following statement through his assistant: "I am so proud of Trevor," Player said. "What a thrill it was to see him come back from major surgery and beat Tiger. I can't wait to see him and shake his hand personally."

Immelman is just the third active South African player to capture a major, joining Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

Woods, who began the day six shots off Immelman's lead, attempted to make a charge, but his putting ultimately let him down. The four-time Masters champion wound up shooting even-par 72, gesturing in frustration when his birdie putt at No. 18 dropped in the hole.

With the exception of a successful 70-foot birdie putt on No. 11, Woods said he simply couldn't make a putt when he needed to. The Grand Slam bid that Woods had said was "easily within reason" earlier this year didn't turn out to be so easy after all.

"I learned my lesson there with the press," Woods told reporters. "I'm not going to say anything. It's just one of those things when you're out there playing, you couldn't care less. You're trying to win a golf tournament.

"You're trying to put yourself in position, which I did. I just didn't make the putts I needed to make this entire week. I had the speed right, I just didn't quite get the line right."

Woods, who has won 13 majors, settled for his fifth runner-up finish in a major at 5-under 283. Stewart Cink (72) and Brandt Snedeker (77) tied for third at 4-under 285, while Phil Mickelson (72), Padraig Harrington (72) and Steve Flesch (78) tied for fifth at 286.

The low round of the day belonged to Miguel Angel Jimenez, who shot a final-round 68 to tie for eighth with Robert Karlsson and Andres Romero.

Immelman said he's thrilled to win a major with Woods in contention.

"I don't think it's ever easy to win a major in any era, but as you say, I'm playing in Tiger Woods' era," said Immelman, whose only other PGA Tour win came with Woods placing second in last year's Western Open. "The guy boggles my mind. I'm an avid sports watcher, I'm an avid sports fan and I study top sportsman, and this guy is frightening in what he gets done and how he gets it done and the ease in which he gets it done."

Earning the green jacket didn't come easy. After rounds of 68, 68 and 69, Immelman's 75 was the highest final-round score by a Masters champion since Arnold Palmer in 1962.

Leading by five shots, Immelman hit a 7-iron approach into the water on No. 16 and took a double bogey. However, perhaps heeding Player's words, Immelman responded with pars on the last two holes to coast to victory.

"Obviously it was a tough day out there," Immelman said. "When I woke up this morning and I peaked outside and saw the trees moving around, I knew it was going to be tough out there for us and I knew I had to go out there and just stick to my game and stick to my game plan and play one shot at a time and just be tough. You know, I'm proud of myself for doing that."

Immelman's performance completed a remarkable story. Last December, he had surgery to remove what turned out to be a benign tumor in his diaphragm and could barely get out of bed for two weeks afterward.

His recovery was relatively slow and Immelman didn't make his first PGA Tour start until late January at the FBR Open. Prior to the Masters, he had missed the cut in four of seven stroke-play events, and his best finish in those tournaments had been a tie for 40th in the CA Championship March 21-24 at Doral.

"I felt like I had to just basically start from zero again," Immelman said. "I started chipping away at a few things and I was missing cuts but just trying to stay positive because I knew I was improving week after week.

"Here I am after missing the cut last week: Masters champion. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."

April 14, 2008

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