April 6, 2009

Center Stage

Life in the limelight as Masters champ causes Trevor Immelman to take stock of what is important to him

DRUM MAJOR: He may be a Masters champ, but as 2-year-old Jacob can attest: Dad's a 10-handicap on the skins.

DRUM MAJOR: He may be a Masters champ, but as 2-year-old Jacob can attest: Dad's a 10-handicap on the skins.

It's Tuesday of Honda Classic week, and Trevor Immelman is sitting in the back of a stretch limousine. Trendy in his Cole Haan European loafers, Rock Republic jeans, Robert Graham shirt, and Gucci jacket and belt, the South African with the deep blue eyes looks to be a model or an actor instead of a ­professional golfer. Instead of playing that week's event in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., the 29-year-old Masters champion was riding from his home at Lake Nona in Orlando to the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, where he was to drop the ceremonial first puck at a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game, part of a corporate outing on behalf of Transitions, a new PGA Tour sponsor.

Corporate days go with winning a major, and this was another demand on Immelman's time, something that has increased dramatically since he won the 2008 Masters. Immediately after winning Immelman flew to New York City for TV appearances with David Letterman and Regis and Kelly, and courtside seats for a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. He filmed two public service announcements for the PGA Tour and did countless print and broadcast interviews. He would add events to his worldwide schedule, playing tournaments in Japan and Abu Dhabi.

The ability to manage these extracurricular activities is a skill Immelman is still learning. It is why Tiger Woods wins multiple majors, while first-timers such as himself, Zach Johnson or Geoff Ogilvy go through learning curves. "It has been crazy but [a] fun crazy," he says during the ride to Tampa. "[The past year] has been very different, a lot of extra stuff to try and find time to try. A lot of stuff I want to do, like today."

After beating Woods by three strokes and surviving one some the most demanding final-round conditions in Masters history, Immelman has had sporadic success on the course. He lost in a playoff at the Stanford St. Jude Championship last June. He closed strong in the FedEx Cup playoffs but burned himself out by playing too many international events in the off-season, and needed four weeks to recover from mid-January to mid-February. He has yet to find his rhythm in 2009 (a T-19 at the Transitions, two weeks after this interview, being his best finish), but Immelman isn't stressed by the slow start. He leaves the impression there is more to his life than just golf and that he is more mature than some of his generation.

Barely out of the gates at Lake Nona and onto the expressway, he begins talking about his year as a major champion. "I'm kind of a New Age golfer with an old-school head on my shoulders," he says. "I've always been one to let my clubs do the talking. I believe that's the way of getting attention [on the course], rather than wearing a fancy belt buckle. That's the way I was brought up in the South African culture. You don't look for attention. You get attention by doing something special."

Winning the Masters was certainly special, but ­Immelman admits it was easier to fly under the radar as a top-20 player than deal with the demands that go with winning a major. "Once you win a major championship, that changes," he says. "It definitely took me a while to be comfortable with that, to deal with that. I do think I suffered a little. I try to just ebb and flow with it, and learn as I'm going along. It's been a great run, a lot of fun and I look forward to going back. That week will be the end of an incredible year in my life."

Trevor Immelman

Immelman's wife, Carminita, is sitting next to him. They met when they were 14-year-old high school freshmen in the Cape Town suburb of Somerset West. At that age Immelman was immersed in golf. Carminita first heard his name being repeated during the morning announcements, for all the trophies he would win. What started with the two watching movies at a friend's house turned into one of those happily-ever-after stories. They married in 2003 and their son, Jacob Trevor, was born in July 2006. Carminita went into labor the week of the British Open, causing Trevor to withdraw and fly home to Orlando. "I used to be more one-track minded," he says. "Everything was about golf. I grew up with such a love for the game. It was all I did since 5, all I wanted to do. As I've gotten older, I've tried to find more of a balance, enjoy other things, experience things other than golf."

Immelman's favorite retreat is a music room he built above his garage. Posters of Metallica and Led Zeppelin and photos of Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger adorn the walls. Albums and sheet music from Elvis Presley to Bruce Springsteen sit on a coffee table. On the floor are two drum sets, a set of Pearls once used by pro-am partner turned close friend Tico Torres of Bon Jovi and a children's set of Ludwigs for Jacob. Trevor's father, Johan, who made a career of marketing South African wines and spirits before taking over the South African Sunshine Tour, was a drummer in a band. So were three of Trevor's uncles and his brother Mark, the golf coach at Columbus (Ga.) State.

Immelman describes himself as a 10-handicap drummer. "I'm one of those guys who has a new set of Nike irons, a new driver with adjustable weights, who's playing a four-piece soft ball—I've got all the gear, but I'm struggling to break 80," he says of his game on the drums.

As a golfer, he was a prodigy. Ogilvy met Immelman during the 1997 British Amateur at Royal St. George's. "Here was this little kid, all week [he was] saying, 'I'm going to win this week, we're going to Augusta next year,''' says Ogilvy. "I'm like, 'Who is this guy?'" Immelman advanced to the final before losing to Scotland's Craig Watson. The result stunned Ogilvy, who calls Immelman, "the most advanced 17-year-old I'd seen to that point."

Trevor Immelman

Adam Scott remembers meeting Immelman later that summer in America, where Immelman would lose the final of the U.S. Junior. "He was a freak, swung like Ernie [Els]," says Scott. "We had dinner one night. He was friends with Ernie, so we heard stories he told about Ernie. He was a bit of a phenomenon among junior golfers, for sure."

In 1998 Immelman showed he could win big events by beating Jason Dufner in the U.S. Amateur Public Links at Torrey Pines to qualify for the Masters. At age 19 he played a practice round at Augusta with Gary Player and made the cut. It was Player, the three-time Masters champion, who held Immelman aloft at age 5, when Trevor was just picking up the game. "I'll never forget him hitting 5-woods out of a divot," Immelman says. "It was one of the most incredible things I've seen."

Approaching the outskirts of Tampa, Immelman talks about a recent trip he took to Augusta with brother Mark and caddie Neil Wallace. He mentions what it was like walking into the Champions locker room, seeing the space he would share with his childhood hero, Nick Faldo. Immelman will never forget Faldo waiting outside Butler Cabin to congratulate him. "The who's who of golf," he says, reciting all the names in the locker room. "For someone like me, who is thoughtful, who has studied the history of golf, it's pretty incredible stuff."

That Immelman competed in the 2008 Masters is incredible considering four months earlier, he was in intensive care. In mid-December, just after winning the Nedbank Challenge, he felt a pain in his ribcage that turned out to be more than a muscle pull. "It felt like somebody wedged a knife in my ribs," he says.

A calcified fibrosis (benign) tumor the size a golf ball was extracted from his diaphragm, but the post-op pain was excruciating and after five days in the ICU he was eventually released. He raises the back of his shirt to show the six-inch scar. We also discuss the meningitis he had in 2000—for a while he thought it was a brain aneurysm—and the stomach virus that sent him to an Augusta hospital during the 2007 Masters and caused him to lose 20 pounds. But it was the threat of the tumor being malignant that altered his perspective. "It made me appreciate life, appreciate people," he says. "I started to realize the world doesn't spin because of golf and what's happening on tour."

There was nothing about the first three months of the 2008 season that indicated a Masters victory was coming. The recovery caused him to postpone his flight to America for three weeks. Anxious to get going, he started at the FBR Open and suffered through a string of ineffective performances, including a missed cut at Houston. But intuitively, Immelman felt his game coming together and wasn't surprised when he opened at Augusta with three rounds in the 60s to lead Brandt Snedeker by two shots going into the final round. He won despite shooting 75 in 30-mile-per-hour gusts during the final round.

Trevor Immelman

His victory didn't get as much play as the stories about the toughened Augusta National killing the tournament's excitement, but there are no hard feelings from Immelman about that. He followed in Player's footsteps and got his place in the Champions locker room. And Els, who has experienced his share of Masters heartache, spent 15 encouraging minutes with him on the phone the Saturday night before the final round.

The limo arrives at the arena, and Immelman enters from the back entrance just as Jagger and Torres did when the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi played there. For the next three hours Immelman does a series of one-on-one interviews Transitions has arranged, drops the puck while wearing a Lightning jersey, and meets guests and tournament officials in a corporate box.

On the ride back to Orlando, Immelman does another interview on a cell phone, then talks about politics, the economy, South African history, his disdain for hypocrites and the days when he and Carminita dragged their luggage around tube stations in London, staying at dirty BBs, subsisting on the $5 all-you-can-eat lunches at Pizza Hut. The car pulls into his driveway at 11:30 p.m. He has an appointment at 8 o'clock the following morning with PGA Tour Productions and a pre-Masters teleconference in the afternoon.

Asked what he's proudest of, Immelman says without hesitation, "Definitely being a father." As he arrives at his doorstep, the next generation of Immelman drummers is fast asleep.