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Masters eased Immelman's pain

Friday, April 02, 2010

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Excuse Trevor Immelman if he seems to be looking over his shoulder and wondering, "What's next?"

Trevor Immelman placed his ball on the ninth green while his son, Jacob, did a little dance during last year's Par-3 Contest. A year after winning the Masters, Immelman tied for 20th in 2009. (Michael Holahan/Staff)

Only 30 years old, the 2008 Masters Tournament champion has already experienced more ebb and flow than most grizzled veterans. His young career is marked by so many successes and setbacks that he should have a mood-swing coach.

"I've had three or four years of extreme highs and extreme lows, with injuries and tournament wins and having (our) first child and then more injuries and losing weight," Immelman said. "It's just been like ... awkward. But at the end of the day I still count myself to be seriously lucky. I've been very fortunate with what this game has given me."

Immelman overcame a series of health scares in 2007 to win at Augusta in 2008. Just when it seemed he had caught up with his potential, however, he has been tested again with a wrist problem that scuttled the better part of 2009 and sent him tumbling in the world rankings.

The South African is starting over again.

"It's very tough. I'm not going to lie," he said. "But you have to keep things in perspective. My problems in that situation is not like the end of the world."

Immelman started feeling pain in his left wrist in September 2008. He kept playing.

"It would come and go," he said. "By the time I got to Augusta last year, it was pretty substantial."

The perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to defend and play host to the Champions Dinner at the Masters was too much of a carrot for him to stop preparing.

"I just wanted to be there so bad, to be defending and going back there to a tournament I love so much," he said. "When I think back now, in February and March I don't even think I was even paying attention to (the wrist). I was just popping painkillers like there was no tomorrow and just going. Because I had just one thing in mind -- to be there and to play. I really wanted to get through it. And I did. But shortly after that, I had to call it quits."

Despite the pain, Immelman tied for 20th at 2-under par.

"It was tough for me to have my best golf," he said.

The wrist kept getting worse. After missing the cut at the Players Championship and Colonial, he started shutting things down.

"We tried everything," he said. "We tried the rest. We tried the rehab. We tried cortisone. I would do that and hit balls for a day or two and it was OK. But once I would get to a tournament or played two days at home, it was back to square one and we'd start all over again. The golf was just aggravating it. Sort of around TPC time I was doing a disservice to everybody by being out there."

He withdrew from the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. By October, he was out of options.

"Towards the mid-to latter part of the year it became pretty obvious that surgery was going to be the only way to fix it," he said. "I wish I'd had the surgery in the mid-part of the year instead of mid-October."

Arthroscopic surgery fixed some cartilage on the top of his wrist, and doctors had to cut on the side to take care of scar tissue and tendinitis that was causing bone to erode and the bulk of the pain. Immelman said it looked like a rodent had been gnawing away at the bone in his wrist.

"It wasn't like the craziest, most severe wrist issue, but I couldn't play golf with it," he said. "I have a low pain threshold as it is."

He started putting at Christ-mas, hit full shots the second week of January and played his first full round at the start of February. He made his first start of the season in Phoenix, missing the cut, but made the weekend at PGA National to start the Florida swing.

Immelman said the wrist pain is no longer an issue. In early March, he called himself 85 percent ready as he worked on regaining his flexibility and correcting the bad habits he got into while compensating for the pain.

"That's been part of my comeback here, is trying to rectify those awful habits," he said.

It's a long trip back. After climbing as high as 14th in the world in the months after his Masters win, Immelman has fallen to 205th.

"To be pretty honest with you, I haven't had my best golf pretty much since the summer of '08," he said. "So that's what I'm striving to get back to."

In spite of everything, Immel-man doesn't count 2009 as a total write-off. His experience at Augusta still helps the season rank among his most memorable.

"I thoroughly enjoyed it last year," he said of the Champions Dinner and returning as defending champion. "It was the best night of my life in golfing terms. Just to be able to rub shoulders with absolute legends.

"I really look forward to doing it every year. I'm looking forward to going back and observing it from a slightly different perspective and enjoying it a bit more from the side as opposed to being the center of it."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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