Trevor Immelman survived a late scare to win The Masters at Augusta National tonight, but less than four months ago he would have been happy just to play in it.
Operated on in December for a tumour on his diaphragm – to his huge relief it was found to be benign rather than cancerous – Immelman defied 25mph winds to win his first major title by a three-shot margin.
And since it was Tiger Woods who finished in second, 28-year-old Immelman became the man to thwart the world number one’s stated aim of a Grand Slam this season.
Immelman was six clear and cruising with four to play and still five ahead on the 16th tee, but he then pulled into the water for a double bogey five there.
When he hit his approach to the 17th into the guarding bunker there was a look of horror and shock on his face. Could it all go horribly wrong in a collapse that would have been compared to Jean van de Velde’s in the 1999 Open?
With Woods having just made a 12-footer for birdie on the last to post five under Immelman was in danger of bogeying and going to the last only two in front.
But he bravely got up and down and when he got a superb drive away down the 465-yard last he let out a sigh of relief.
What he did not know was that it finished in a deep divot hole, but getting it on the green meant the job was done.
He shot a closing 75 for an eight-under-par aggregate of 280 and while nobody has ever shot higher in the last round to become Masters champion, that mattered not a jot to him.
Joint third were Woods’ fellow Americans Stewart Cink and Brandt Snedeker, the latter reflecting on an amazing rollercoaster 77 containing an eagle, two birdies and no fewer than nine bogeys.
Open champion Padraig Harrington finished top European in joint fifth place with left-handers Phil Mickelson and Steve Flesch, who played the last seven holes in six over.
Harrington, never close enough to threaten a repeat of his Carnoustie heroics, was round in a fine 72, but for others it was a real tale of woe.
Paul Casey, fourth when he teed off, turned in 41 and ended up with a 79 for 11th spot alongside Lee Westwood (73), while Ian Poulter, his chances re-ignited by birdies on the opening two holes, then had four double bogeys in a 78 to be only 25th on four over.
Immelman, whose last trip to The Masters a year ago put him out of action for over a month when a parasite entered his stomach, leaves this time as just the fifth South African in history to lift a major, joining Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.
Sent a vote of confidence by Player, the only other Masters champion in the group, before he went out – the 72-year-old this week appeared in the event for a record 51st time – Immelman lost his two-shot overnight lead early on, but then gave a quite wonderful display.
It was all the more remarkable given that he had never finished higher than fifth in any other major – at Augusta three years ago thanks to a hole-in-one at the 16th in the final round.
And it should also be remembered that in seven previous stroke play events this season the world number 29’s best finish was 40th. If ever a player hit form at the right moment, it was Immelman this week.
Immelman and Snedeker, his closest overnight challenger, both began shakily with bogeys, but the American then moved into a share of top spot with a 30-foot putt on the 575-yard second – only the second eagle of the tournament there.
While Snedeker then bogeyed the third, sixth, seventh, however, Immelman’s only deviation from par over the same stretch was a superb birdie at the 455-yard fifth, where he struck his approach to within a yard of the flag.
He had a four-stroke advantage going to the long eighth, but three putts for a bogey six there cut the gap to two as Flesch had birdied it just before.
By then, though, Casey had already fallen out of the running, barring a miracle. Only two behind when he birdied the third, he failed to get out of a bunker on the short fourth, double-bogeyed and then had five bogeys in the following seven holes.
That included the 180-yard sixth, where he called a penalty shot on himself when his ball moved after he had addressed it on the green.
Woods threatened to move a back-nine charge when, after bogeying the 10th to be six adrift, he sank a putt estimated at 70 feet on the next.
However, he missed a four-footer for birdie at the 13th, then bogeyed the next.
That was one big bonus for Immelman and more came with Flesch going in the water for a double bogey at the 12th and three-putting the 14th.
The Cape Town golfer did bogey the 12th himself, but that still left him with a three-stroke cushion and by the time he reached the 15th tee that had swelled to six and he was almost home and dry.
While he came back with a marvellous pitch to three feet for birdie on the 13th Snedeker went into the creek and bogeyed there and at the next as well.