AUGUSTA - Trevor Immelman has never felt better.
Four months after he had a tumor removed from his back, Immelman handled the wind and pressure of Augusta National far better than anyone chasing him Sunday to win the Masters, the first South African in a green jacket in 30 years.
Immelman held it together around Amen Corner and stretched his lead to as many as six shots on the back nine, taking the life out of a Masters that began with so much hype.
A two-putt par on the final hole gave him a 3-over 75, matching the highest final round by a Masters champion. Even so, it was good enough for a three-shot victory over Tiger Woods, whose hopes for a calendar Grand Slam ended with a thud.
Woods never got within five shots of the lead when he was on the course, twice missed birdie putts inside 8 feet and had to settle for a 72 and his second consecutive runner-up finish in the Masters.
"I learned my lesson there with the press," Woods said with a smile. He was the one who started the talk about a Grand Slam by stating three months ago that winning all four majors in the same year was "easily within reason."
The only slam possibilities now belong to Immelman, a 28-year-old with a polished swing, who finally realized his potential in the wicked wind of Augusta and a final round that yielded only four rounds under par.
Immelman, who finished at 8-under 280, started the week by playing a practice round with his boyhood idol, Gary Player, who won his third Masters in 1978 and set a record by playing for the 51st time.
Player told Immelman he was good enough to win the green jacket, and he left him a voicemail Saturday night that Immelman played on his speaker phone for his family to hear. The message: "I know you’re going to win."
"He’s been on me all week, telling me to believe in myself," Immelman said. "He also told me to keep my head still on putts. It’s really a special moment, and I’m glad I pulled it through for him."
Reached by telephone in Abu Dhabi, Player told his assistant: "I am so proud of Trevor. 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’s wife, Carminita, and their 1-year-old son were waiting for him behind the green. Jacob took hold of the 18th flag, fussing when he couldn’t go into the scoring shack to be with his father.
Immelman’s parents also were there to greet him with hugs. His father, Johan, is the former commissioner of the Sunshine Tour in South Africa.
"It’s his moment, not mine," said the father, who waved away a reporter.
No one doubted he was capable of winning a major, but maybe not this one. Only four months ago, doctors discovered a tumor in his diaphragm that required surgery through his back to remove it. The tumor was benign and the recovery was quick, even though it took him two months to get his game back in shape.
The recovery hit warp speed this week at Augusta, where Immelman had only broken par once in his five previous Masters.
"This has been the ultimate roller-coaster ride, and I hate roller coasters," Immelman said. "I win the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa, and a week later I’m having an operation to remove a tumor. ... I felt like I had to start from zero again. Here I am after missing the cut last week.
"Masters champion — it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of."
Immelman built a two-shot lead with three rounds in the 60s, and held it together during a few nervy moments.
He made a 10-foot par save from the bunker at No. 9 to keep a two-shot cushion, but continued to look shaky. Immelman missed the 11th green well to the right when his chip didn’t quite reach and he was left with a 20-foot putt that was slick and dangerous.
Ahead of him, Woods was gaining momentum.
Woods holed a 70-foot birdie putt on the 11th, made an acrobatic escape from the trees on the 13th and spun a wedge down the slope on the par-5 13th that left him 5 feet away for birdie.
Immelman holed his par putt. Woods missed, just as he has done the last two years on the back nine of a major he once dominated. Brandt Snedeker and Steve Flesch, the last two players with any hope, folded quickly.
Woods closed with a 72 and has finished 3-2-2 in his last three Masters. It also was his fifth runner-up in a major.
Immelman earned $1.35 million for his second PGA Tour victory, with Woods also finishing second behind him two years ago in the Western Open.
"I was trying to be tough out there," Immelman said. "There’s a disaster around every corner."
Emotions were running wild for all the contenders, none more than Snedeker, who tied for third with Stewart Cink. The 27-year-old American with Huck Finn looks and a constant smile made only six pars in his round of 77, tying for the lead with an eagle on the second hole but stumbling badly the rest of the way.
"I went from extreme highs to extreme lows, and that’s what you don’t want to do around here," Snedeker said.
Flesch was within two shots of the lead until a gust caught his 8-iron on the 12th hole, sending it into Rae’s Creek for a double bogey. He bogeyed four straight holes after that and shot 78.
Ultimately, everyone made it easy on Immelman. The three guys behind him at the start of the final round were a combined 18-over par.
Woods wasn’t much better. He managed only three birdies, the last one from 18 feet on the final hole that came way too late. Woods could only offer a dismissive wave when the ball disappeared.
"I hit the ball well enough to contend," Woods said. "I definitely hit the ball well enough to put some pressure on Trevor. I just didn’t make any putts."
The first blast of wind hit Amen Corner an hour before the leaders teed off, a sign of how tough it would be in the final round. And that didn’t account for the pressure on four guys contending for the first time in a major — at Augusta, no less.
The first to fall was Paul Casey, two shots out of the lead until it took him two shots to get out of the bunker on No. 4 for double bogey. Casey dropped six shots in a five-hole stretch, including the par-3 sixth, when he called a penalty on himself for his ball moving a fraction of an inch as he stood over a 3-foot putt. Casey closed with a 79.
For the others, it took awhile longer to collapse.
Snedeker provided most of the excitement on an otherwise dull day, holing a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 2 for a share of the lead. He made a 45-foot birdie putt across the green on the 12th for a birdie to pull within three shots.
But there was a massive shortage of pars, and far too many mistakes.
The biggest came on the par-5 13th. Riding the momentum from a two-shot swing on the previous hole, Snedeker went for the green in two and left it well out to the right, finding the bottom of Rae’s Creek for the second straight day. Snedeker held the club at both ends and flexed the shaft, wanting to snap it in half.
"Golly, man, if somebody could tell me how to play that second shot, I’d love to know," he said. "Because two days in a row, I’ve hit it in the damn water."
Immelman wisely laid up, then fired a wedge into the back bank and watched it roll down to 2 feet for birdie. As the bogeys piled up behind him, the South African suddenly found himself in the most beautiful spot at Augusta.
He had a five-shot lead with five holes to play, most of the trouble out of the way.
His lone mistake was a tee shot into the water on the 16th for double bogey, but by then he could afford it.