Perspective helps Immelman as he takes Masters lead

4/11/2008 - Golf Trevor Immelman

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The scar stretches the length of a tap-in putt, from the side of Trevor Immelman's rib cage toward the middle of his lower back.

Sergio Garcia asked to see it. A lot of the pros did. Immelman has pulled up his shirt for more surgery show-and-tells than he can count.

"Public indecency," said Immelman.

This is your Masters leader. An upper-body flasher.

Immelman can sort of joke about it now. But only sort of.

A year ago he was grinding and ralphing his way around Augusta National. Thank you, stomach parasite -- the one that caused Immelman to lose 25 pounds in three weeks.

Eight months later, his childhood doctor in South Africa was telling him to see a specialist. There was another problem.

The MRI was done on a Thursday morning. That night he was told about the tumor, which was hiding under his right rib cage. The surgery was performed the following Tuesday. And it wasn't until two days after the operation -- the longest two days of his life -- that Immelman learned the growth was not cancerous.

Immelman will always remember Dec. 18, 2007. That was the day a surgeon dragged a scalpel across his side and back. And once the meds and morphine wore off, it also became the day Immelman's priorities underwent a realignment.

"I'm so competitive and I've played this game since I was 5 years old and all I've ever wanted to do was win golf tournaments," said Immelman, 28. "I kind of felt like it was a speed bump, really, you know? Because I just wanted to keep going. But I realized it could get taken away from you real fast."

The truth is, Immelman lucked out. Some wake-up calls come too late. Immelman received a scar and a scare, but at least he's smart enough to understand his own mortality.

"It definitely gives you perspective because I went from winning a tournament [the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa] to lying in a hospital bed waiting for results on a tumor," said Immelman. "So [it] definitely made me realize that golf wasn't my whole life."

What he did Thursday and again on Friday -- shoot matching 68s on an Augusta National course a little light on full-throated roars these days -- shouldn't come as a complete surprise. OK, a bit of a surprise.

Immelman was the 2006 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, so he isn't an unknown. And his swing is so technically perfect that fellow South African Gary Player invoked the name of you-know-who.

"He has as fine a swing as any man playing golf today," said Player after completing his record-breaking 51st Masters. "His swing is absolutely the closest, the closest that I've seen to Ben Hogan. And I always thought Ben Hogan was the best striker of the ball from tee to green that I ever saw."

Player has known Immelman since Immelman was a kid. When Player first heard the news of the surgery, he phoned Immelman to check in. So did other members of the South African golf mafia, including Retief Goosen, who is at 2 under, six strokes behind his buddy, and Tim Clark.

Garcia also called. So did Nick Price.

"I was concerned about him having the operation," Player said. "He had a very big operation and it takes a long time to get over that."

It's taken Immelman less than four months to get his game in Masters playing shape. Of course, first he had to gain enough strength to actually walk again. Then it was six weeks until he could baby tap a few chips and putts.

It didn't go well. Chili dips and skulled shots galore. He went home and told his wife, "I don't know what's going on."

The deceased Ben Hogan made the same number of cuts that Immelman made at the FBR Open (Immelman's 2008 debut) and the Northern Trust Open: zero. Immelman finished tied for 17th at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, missed the cut at the Honda Classic, finished no higher than 40th in his next three tour events, and then missed the cut at the Shell Houston Open.

And now he leads the Masters.

A pre-Masters scouting trip to Augusta with Orlando-area neighbors Ian Poulter (tied for third after Friday's round) and Justin Rose (tied for the first-round lead with Immelman) made a difference. But so did playing the course without a stomach parasite and without a tumor in his body.

"Yeah, I mean, it's incredible," said his buddy Poulter. "I think it was a shock to everyone that he had to go in for surgery."

And to some it might be a shock to see Immelman atop the leaderboard. But strange things happen at Augusta National, like Immelman in first and Tiger Woods way back, seven strokes behind the leader. Woods' Grand Slam aspirations might need some CPR if he doesn't make a huge move on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Immelman enjoys the moment. And life, too.

"I feel like I've been loaned a talent and I'm going to try to do as well as I can," he said.

The Masters is a nice place to start paying back the loan.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.