Karma...fate...destiny...call it what you will, but there was an eerie sense of inevitability over the outcome of a tournament - the South African Airways Open - which meant the world to Trevor Immelman. Wealthy beyond the dreams of most young men of his age, proud owner of new homes in London and Orlando which he shares with his childhood sweetheart, Carminita, at 23 Immelman seemed to have it all. Well, almost.
From a meteoric rise through the amateur ranks in South Africa, to a successful conversion to the professional game, Immelman had been feted in his native country as the next major golfing talent to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Gary Player.
But as he flew into Cape Town from Lake Nona, where he is now a close neighbour of the aforementioned Els, a tiny voice kept nagging away at the back of Immelman’s mind. Despite the trappings of success, he still was not a winner on The European Tour International Schedule. In fact, of the leading 15 golfers on the 2002 Volvo Order of Merit (he finished 14th) Immelman was the only one not to have stepped onto the winners’ podium on The European Tour.
As fate would have it, however, the 2003 South African Airways Open offered Immelman the opportunity to begin his year among his home comforts. Erinvale Golf Club is situated in the suburban town of Somerset West, headquarters of the Sunshine Tour and also Immelman’s birthplace. It was there, 17 years earlier, after his first eye-opening golfing experience, that five year old Trevor rushed home and breathlessly informed his parents, Johan and June, that he wanted to become the best golfer in the world.
With that mission in mind, Erinvale became his second home for several years as he tramped the lush fairways of the Player-designed course, dreaming, as youngsters do, about one day winning his national championship, the second oldest Open in the world.
Fast forward to January 12, 2003. One stroke behind tournament leader and defending champion, Tim Clark, Immelman knew his moment had arrived. Every time he looked up he saw not only a familiar face, but a face that he could put a name to. Everyone at Erinvale knew the young man with the cheeky grin, who honed his game at the Club and who was accorded Honorary Membership during his stellar amateur career.
At that precise moment, destiny came calling. After carving his tee shot at the 72nd hole into the rough, within 18 inches of a pesky bush, Immelman checked his yardage with his experienced caddie, Neil Wallace. Precisely 180 yards to the flag, every chance of a ‘flier’. Selecting his wedge, Immelman applied brute force and propelled the ball onto the green, 12 feet behind the cup.
The putt was by no means a formality, but Immelman had been there before. Literally hundreds of times. He knew that green like the back of his hand, knew the nuances, the breaks, the speed. Destiny again.
“I turned to Neil and said to him: ‘two cups outside the right edge’. I’d made that putt so many times before I didn’t need to read it. It was just a case of getting the pace right,” he later recalled.
Sure enough, the ball dropped, dead centre, dead weight, into the hole for the most important birdie three of his young life. The roar could have been heard at the top of Table Mountain as the galleries rose to acclaim the putt and Immelman responded with a passable impersonation of Tiger Woods’s ‘fist pump’ routine.
A round of 67 and a 14 under par total of 274. A play-off now looked likely. Immelman inhaled deeply as he waited for events to unravel, trying, in his own words, “to bring my heart rate down to 1000 beats a minute!”
Just behind, another favourite son of the Cape, Jean Hugo, had lost a winning chance and the opportunity for the headline writer’s dream. There would be no Victor Hugo after a penalty shot at the 16th followed by a double bogey at the 17th dropped the man from Stellenbosch into a tie for third.
Clark, though, had a birdie putt at the last to win and emulate Player, the last person to defend the title successfully in 1977.
The ball slid agonisingly across the hole, leaving Clark tied with Immelman and unquestionably ruing the five fluffed chips at the 16th hole in the third round which, in all probability, cost him the title. Few golfers rack up a nine and still win.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Back to the 18th tee the two gladiators went and Clark, a gritty competitor, knocked his approach to ten feet. A hush fell over Erinvale as Immelman assessed his 169 yard second shot, took out a nine iron and, from the centre of the fairway, hit a shot of radar precision to within nine inches of the cup. Not for the first time that week, destiny beckoned.
Clark, almost inevitably, missed the putt and Immelman tapped in, leaving him hugging family and friends and cradling the glittering prize he had craved so much as a youngster.
“I’ve been dreaming about this moment for so long and for it to happen at home, in front of my home crowd, people I’ve known for ever, I don’t have words to describe it,” said the emotional champion.
“When I hit the approach in the play-off I knew it was all over the pin and I could see people jumping and I knew it had come close. I said to Neil I hope it’s a tap-in because I don’t think I could handle a five footer right now! The closer we got to the hole the closer it got and anyone could have holed that little putt. It was as if it was meant to be.”
Destiny, you might say.