AUGUSTA, Ga. – Trevor Immelman felt goose bumps as he listened to a phone message left by Gary Player, his childhood idol and the last South African to slip on a green jacket at the Masters.

Brian Merlos
Trevor Immelman strikes a pose after becoming the Masters champion on Sunday. (AP PHOTO)

Player told him to believe in himself, to be strong through the adversity that was sure to find him during the wind-whipped final round at Augusta National.

“I took that all to heart,” Immelman said after a three-shot victory. “And I’m sure he’s proud of me.”

For more than just his golf.

Only four months ago, Immelman was in a hospital in South Africa as doctors prepared to remove a tumor from his diaphragm, learning only after the operation that it was benign. Yesterday, as he stood over a slippery 20-foot putt for par as Tiger Woods was trying to make a charge, Immelman passed his biggest test in golf.

Immelman came up clutch around Amen Corner, stretched his lead to as many as six shots, and held on for a 3-over 75 to become the first South African since Player in 1978 to wear the coveted green jacket.

“This has been the ultimate roller-coaster ride, and I hate roller coasters,” Immelman said.

He wins a tournament in South Africa. He’s in the hospital a week later as doctors slice open his back to remove a tumor. He struggles to contend when he returns to golf. And only last week, he misses another cut on the PGA Tour.

“Here I am … Masters champion,” Immelman said. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

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.”

Player is among five players to have won the career Grand Slam. Among active players, Immelman becomes the third South African to capture a major, joining Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

As for that calendar Grand Slam, that will have to wait until next year for Woods.

He never got within five shots of the lead when he was on the course. He twice missed birdie putts inside 8 feet. And he had to settle for a 72 for his fifth runner-up finish in a major.

“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 and quiet determination.

“I knew he was going to make a run,” he said, referring to Woods. “To win a major while he’s playing, and he’s playing at his peak … it’s a hell of an achievement. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it done again, but I’ll be trying my best.”

Even after Immelman dunked a 7-iron into the water on the 16th hole with a five-shot lead, he regrouped to make double bogey, saved par from a bunker on the 17th and hit the final green despite his tee shot landing in a deep divot.

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