Originally featured in the April 2009 issue of AVIDGOLFER Magazine. Interview by Robert Rodriguez
It’s been a whirlwind 15 months for Trevor Immelman.
First there was the health scare in December 2007, when Immelman had to withdraw from the South African Airways Open due to severe discomfort around his ribcage area and breathing problems. He went into surgery three days after his WD, and doctors discovered a lesion approximately the size of a golf ball on his diaphragm.
Then came the recovery process, which involved regaining the weight and strength he lost because of the surgery, and getting his competitive juices flowing once again. That wasn’t easy. Of his first eight events during the 2008 PGA Tour season, Immelman missed four cuts. He made it to the second round at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, but his best stroke-play finish was a tie for 40th at the World Golf Championships-CA Championship.
Then came that second week in April in Augusta. Something just clicked for Immelman that week. He was tied for the lead with Justin Rose after the first round of The Masters Tournament, shooting a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68. Immelman stayed sharp in Round 2, notching five birdies and just one bogey to shoot another 68 and lead by one over Brandt Snedeker.
Usually on Saturday, the leaders start crumbling at Augusta National unless they’re named Tiger Woods. Not Immelman. He posted another round in the 60s – a 3-under-par 69 – for a two-shot lead over Snedeker. The final round, though, was a doozy for Immelman. Thankfully, those in contention also had problems. Immelman was 1-over on the front nine after making a birdie at the fifth and bogeying the first and ninth holes. He went through Amen Corner at even par, with a bogey on the par-3 12th and a birdie at the par-5 13th. The only one with a realistic chance of catching Immelman was – who else – Tiger. But there wouldn’t be any red shirt heroics on this day. Despite a double-bogey at the par-3 16th, Immelman put it on cruise control, making pars at the finishing holes for a final round 75 and a three-shot win over Woods.
The win made Immelman an instant star. He made the rounds on the late night shows; he received standing ovations at sporting events; he appeared on the cover of nearly every golf magazine. For the 2008 season, the 29-year-old Immelman finished 19th on the money list with $2,566,199. He lost in a playoff to Justin Leonard at the Stanford St. Jude Championship, and finished tied for 10th at the Tour Championship – his only other top-10 finishes for the year.
This month, Immelman will defend his Masters title. So far in 2009 he’s played in five events, with his best finish occurring at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship (a tie for 21st).
Despite his slow start in ’09, Immelman has proven that he has the game to remain a Tour stalwart and not just become a flash in the pan. Before turning pro in 1999, Immelman was the 1998 U.S. Amateur Public Links Champion. In 2006, he won the Cialis Western Open and finished seventh on the money list, notching him the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year.
His 5’9”, 170-pound frame reminds many of another South African major winner, Gary Player. While he doesn’t partake in Player’s arduous workout regimen, Immelman’s engaging personality makes him a fan favorite.
AVIDGOLFER recently spoke to Immelman while he was in Tampa watching his first professional hockey game in person, and crosschecked him with questions on everything from biltong to his favorite sports teams to his upcoming schedule.
AG: What American sports do you follow?
TI: I love the NFL and NBA. I mostly enjoy American sports as a whole. I love the culture and I love the way the fans get behind their teams.
Any particular American teams you root for?
Obviously by living in Orlando I like the Magic. They’re a young, promising team, and they’re winning a lot of games. And in football, I’m a makeshift Dallas Cowboys fan. When my wife and I first moved to America in the mid-1980s, we spent some time in Dallas so we became fans of the Cowboys.
What part of Dallas did you live in?
You know, there’s some big stadium being built over there. I don’t know what it is…
[laughing] I can’t wait for the new Cowboys stadium to open.
Can you tell me what’s going to be on the Masters menu?
I cannot. I’m still in the process of deciding exactly what we’re going to do. I can tell you that it will have a South African feel to it. We still have some choices to make, so I’m not 100 percent sure as of yet.
[laughing] Yeah, we’ll have some biltong there, that’s for sure. It’s a very dry meat, but it’s some good stuff. Here in America, it’s very similar to beef jerky. Most Americans actually like the taste of biltong.
Have you worn your green jacket out and about since The Masters?
A few times. For the most part, though, it’s stored in the closet at the house. Friends come over the house and want to take a look at it. I’m getting ready to wear it again at Augusta National, so I have to get it cleaned.
What’s the size of the jacket?
You won the 1998 U.S. Amateur Public Links at Torrey Pines South. How drastically different was that golf course when you played the U.S. Open there last year?
The routing was the same, but they did change the feel of the course. They improved it and I was quite pleased with how they set that course up for the U.S. Open. The USGA (United States Golf Association) got it right that week. I thought it was a fair test. Obviously it was very demanding, but I think with the changes and conditions they did a good job.
Tell me about what happened on Dec. 17, 2007.
Anytime you go through something like that it’s pretty hair-raising. It was a tough time for my family and I, but obviously I was lucky enough to get the right results. Once I recovered from the surgery, it was a matter of me waiting 2½ months to recover from the wound. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to have any more treatments.
At any point, were you afraid for your life?
Well, I was under enough drugs to where I wasn’t thinking about that. Going into the surgery was pretty intimidating, but once I came out I took all sorts of drugs to take the pain away. It took about 48 hours for us to get the results. But I wasn’t 100 percent conscious to think about that.
You’ve played in several Byron Nelson Championships. What is it about that tournament or the Dallas area that makes it one of your favorites?
Byron Nelson is someone who gave a lot to the game and was a true gentleman. He was an incredible champion; who knows how many majors he would have won if he didn’t stop playing at such a young age. He’s definitely one of the guys who was instrumental in getting the Tour to where it is today. I had the privilege of meeting him a few times at his event, and that’s quite an experience for a young, aspiring player. I’ve always enjoyed my time playing in the Byron Nelson. The red pants (Salesmanship Club of Dallas) do an incredible job running the event and raising a ton of money for charity. The fans are always exciting, and they improved the golf course. It’s always been one of the premier events on Tour.
You’ve also played in the Colonial several times, but never have you played in both Metroplex events in one year. Will that change this year since both are back-to-back?
At this point I haven’t drawn out my schedule that far ahead. It definitely is an option for me. I haven’t decided 100 percent what I’m going to do the rest of the year, but those are both events I enjoy playing. I love spending time in both Dallas and Fort Worth, so that definitely is an option for me.
Does your fellow countryman, Rory Sabbatini, get a bad rap?
Yeah, he’s a little misunderstood. [Lengthy pause] He’s kind of been this way ever since I’ve known him, which was when I was about 13 years old. He pretty much says what comes into his mind. I don’t think he means any malice toward anyone, and I don’t think he specifically intends to the say the wrong thing. I just think that’s his personality. I’ve always been close to him and spent a lot of time with he, his wife Amy, their two kids, and I think he’s a fantastic guy. At times, though, he’s said the wrong things at the wrong time. And unfortunately, he’s taken a lot of flak for that. To be perfectly honest, he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about him. He knows what’s important to him, and at the end of the day whatever people say about him is something he doesn’t lose much sleep over. And that’s one of the great qualities that he has.
Nike’s “The Good Life” commercial that ran during the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play was genius. Did you all have as much fun with it as it looked?
[chuckling] Absolutely. Everyone knew going into that commercial what it was all about – a tongue-in-cheek spot showboating the successful season Nike Golf had, and on top of that, Tiger’s return. We had a fun time with it. We shot it back in November at Colonial Country Club. It’s always nice to meet up with the guys in a relaxed atmosphere like that. It was a fun day.
Tell me about your latest endeavor – your involvement with Transitions Lenses, as you’re one of their “Healthy Sight Ambassadors”.
It’s a pretty special technology, and Transitions has a strong presence in South Africa and the United Kingdom. An opportunity arose when they decided to get involved with the PGA Tour and become a sponsor of the Tampa tournament. They were looking to align themselves with a young player who wears contact lenses and sunglasses on the course, and it was a perfect fit for me. It’s an honor for me to be representing the company and being their ambassador. And from what I understand, the company is very excited about influencing people’s lives in a positive way through healthy eyesight.
Trevor Immelman In the Bag
Driver: Nike SQ DYMO STR8-FIT
Irons: Victory Red Split Cavity Irons (3-PW)
Fairway Woods: SQ DYMO 19 degrees
Hybrid: Nike SQ Sumo² 17 degrees
Wedges: Victory Red 54, Victory Red 60
Putter: Nike Prototype Putter
Ball: Nike ONE Tour