Trevor Immelman birdied the 18th hole at Erinvale Golf Club twice in the space of half an hour to win a sudden-death play-off against defending champion Tim Clark and capture his first title on The European Tour International Schedule after three second place finishes.
In a thrilling finale to the South African Airways Open, the 23 year old former club member at Erinvale – born in Somerset West just a couple of miles from the course – conjured up two wonderful strokes to wrest the crown from Clark’s grasp.
Immelman, who began the final day three behind 54 hole leader Jean Hugo and two behind Clark, knocked a 180 yard wedge 12 feet behind the final hole and forced in the birdie putt for a round of 67 and 14 under par total of 274.
Clark, the champion in Durban last year and the halfway leader in a superb defence of the title, had a birdie chance of his own on the 72nd hole to render Immelman’s joyous celebrations on the 18th green irrelevant. However his 12 footer slid across the hole and the two players returned to the 18th tee for the play-off.
This time Clark knocked his approach to ten feet but Immelman, seemingly inspired by the sight of so many familiar faces in the galleries, hit a sweet nine iron from 169 yards to within a foot for a tap-in birdie. Clark missed his attempt and the world’s second oldest open championship was in the grasp of the local hero.
Immelman said: "I’ve been dreaming of this moment for so long, and for it to happen in front of my home crowd – people who I’ve known for ever – is difficult to take in. I don’t really have the words to describe how I feel. It’s just incredible.
"I felt like my 30 footer for birdie in the third round gave me the momentum for the final day. Before I even got to the ball at the 18th first time around I knew the line was two cups to the right down hill. I’ve hit that putt so many times I didn’t have to worry about the pace."
Immelman, who moves to second place on the Volvo Order of Merit behind Padraig Harrington, delivered a passable imitation of Tiger Woods in full celebratory mode. He revealed: "I did give it a bit of a song and dance after I holed the putt in regulation play, but I figured that might be the only chance in your life so I made sure I did a good job of it!"
Clark, with a round of 69, did not quite manage to emulate Gary Player, the last person to defend the title in 1977. However he was left to rue the five chips he took at the side of the 16th green during the third round when holding a three stroke lead over the field.
"Yes, that was four or five shots wasted in one hole. It’s just one of those things. I could have hit the first chip 25 feet past the hole and escaped with a par five, but I was trying to get it close for birdie. With a bit better thought process things would have been different".
Immelman confirmed that that one hole proved critical in the outcome of the tournament. He said: "It was unfortunate for Tim but lucky for the rest of us. It let everyone back into the tournament. If he had parred and gone four or five shots ahead, a guy of his experience is not easily going to give up that kind of lead."
Hugo, a native of the Cape like Immelman, seemed to be in a strong position to record his first victory. He profited from Clark’s third round mishap to lead by a stroke going into the final day and was always in contention until the closing holes.
At the 16th he drove into an environmentally sensitive area and had to accept a one stroke penalty. The resultant bogey dropped him for a tie for the lead with Clark and he took a double bogey at the next, having been knocked out of his stride.
"I thought I had a good chance of winning" said Hugo, who lost his European Tour card at the end of last season. "What happened on the 16th was disappointing but I tried my best and have another co-sanctioned event in Johannesburg this week to try to regain my card."
South African players also shared third place on 277, three behind the leading pair. They included 18 year old Charl Schwartzel, tipped as the new rising star in his country, who closed with a round of 65, the best of the final day.
Six European Tour Members – Andrew Coltart, Brian Davis, Stephen Dodd, Rolf Muntz, Gary Murphy and Justin Rose – all tied for eighth on 278, ten under par.