By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- In the opening round of the PGA Championship, a former major champion who is a model of physical fitness, with a swing that should be the envy of every Saturday morning amateur, made another attempt at a major championship comeback after battling injuries for three solid years.
No, it wasn’t Tiger Woods. This champion was Trevor Immelman, who shot 69 on Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club, eight shots better than Tiger. Only Tiger shot 77 in front of 5,000 to 7,000 fans, while Immelman played his final nine holes to a gallery of 18 people, two of whom where his parents.
“Obviously there were a lot of people there on the back nine, our first nine, but when we made the turn it was like there was nobody out there,” Immelman said. “It was kind of weird for the afternoon of a major.”
It was also kind of a sad commentary about the celebrity-centric nature of the game today. Immelman, like Woods, won the Masters in his 20s. He also attempted to play through a series joint injury (a wrist with Trevor, where Tiger’s was a knee). He is a well-tuned athlete, and a driven competitor. And he has a swing that you would tell every kid in the world to copy.
He also says things that sound familiar. “I feel like I’m getting close,” Immelman said after temporarily moving into a tie for third with Scott Verplank at -3 before dropping a couple of shots.
“First things first: the wrist is healed. This year since late February I’ve had no pain at all. What I’ve been able to do now is go out and work on some of the things that I used to work on, and get back to the blueprint that I had in 2005, which is great,” he explained. “For the second half of 2008, -09, and -10, I really wasn’t able to put the club in a position at the top like I did when I played my best. But, finally, this year I’ve been able to start and get it there. Now it’s a process of trying to train it back in, getting out of the bad habits that I got into from being injured.
“Since the Florida Swing I’ve started feeling good. I’ve had moments where I’ve strung a few good holes or a round or two rounds together. I’m excited now; excited to wake up and get out there and play; exited to get back to where I was before, if not better.”
He has shown signs of brilliance: the first round lead after an opening 64 at the Greenbrier, and a third-round run at the lead at Bay Hill. Each good finish inspires greater confidence, a process he understands is going to take time.
“For two years I was struggling,” Immelman said. “I was struggling with my health and hitting shots that I wasn’t accustomed to hitting. That took a lot of confidence away from me. On top of that, through all the time I had to take off, I wasn’t able to compete. I was never able to do good things to regain confidence. I had two years of being frustrated. Now, for me, confidence is the thing that’s missing. I’m hitting some of the shots that I did when I was top 15 in the world. Now I need to start building on that.”
Unlike another player who continually makes similar claims, Immelman is, indeed, close. He is driving the ball down the sprinkler line and hits stretches where every iron shot looks like it’s going in the hole.
But he is more than that. Trevor Immelman is a better man than he is a golfer. And he is a fantastic golfer. Unlike so many modern athletes, he is open about his faith, publicly adoring of his family, and kind to every stranger he meets.
On Sept. 12, he, along with his father Johan, will launch the inaugural “Golf 9-12” day, a special day of remembrance intended to rebuild the unity and support that existed the day after 9-11. They hope, through golf, to rekindle that bond.
The Immelmans are South African. And they are patriots.
Keep that in mind as you follow the leaders throughout this week. There are more than a few quality players in this field. And more than a couple of quality men.