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Sunday, 18 January 2004
Trevor Immelman followed in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Gary Player, when he became the first person since the Black Knight in 1976-77 to successfully defend the South African Airways Open following a masterful display at his home Erinvale Golf Club.

Last year the 24 year old South African required a play-off to beat Tim Clark and claim his maiden European Tour title but 12 months on, the victory was achieved in fine style in 72 holes. Two shots behind at the start of the day, Immelman shrugged off an early dropped shot at the second and produced controlled and high quality golf in the swirling Western Cape winds to sweep to victory.

In the end he could even afford the luxury of a dropped shot at the last and still win comfortably, his final round 67 giving him a 12 under par total of 276 and victory by three shots from Scotland’s Alastair Forsyth and England’s Steve Webster, who closed with respective final rounds of 68 and 71 for 279.

The victory represented the first time a player had successfully defended a title on The European Tour since another of Immelman’s heroes, Ernie Els, did so in the Heineken Classic in Australia in 2002 and 2003 and moved him top of the Volvo Order of Merit with €113,536 (£79,000).

It was little wonder then that he was delighted to be talked about in the same breath as Player and Els. “Those guys are legends in South African sport and it is fantastic for me to have done something each of them has done,” he said.

“It is wonderful to win. I definitely feel I am a better player this year than I was last year. I have gotten stronger and have more control over my game and my timing has improved dramatically.”

After his early setback at the second, Immelman began the climb to the top of the leaderboard with birdies at the second and third and when he added two more at the seventh and eighth, the excitement in his home town crowd was palpable.

By the turn, the overall lead in the tournament had been assumed by Denmark’s Anders Hansen, looking for his second European Tour success to follow his Volvo PGa Championship win in 2002.

But the turning point came in the early part of the back nine, Immelman making birdie at the long 13th almost at the same time as Hansen shed a shot at the short 12th after his tee shot strayed right into a bunker.

It was the beginning of the end for the Dane who, along with his co-leader and playing partner in the final group of the day, South Africa’s Craig Lile, slipped back into the pack after coming unstuck on the final few holes.

But Immelman went from strength to strength and when he birdied the long 16th the tournament was realistically over as a contest. He still had to negotiate the 481 yard par four 17th – the hardest hole on the course all week – but he did so with a textbook par four, his bogey five at the 18th, immaterial to all but the statisticians.

The two players who shared second place, Forsyth and Webster, had differing emotions. Playing serious golf for the first time after a winter break in Scotland, Forsyth was delighted to shake off the cobwebs in such a positive fashion.

“I have been working on my game over the winter with my coach Ian Rae and I thought I might be a little rusty,” said Forsyth, who started the final round four shots of the lead. “But I was delighted to come out and shoot four under on day one and I just took it from there. I’m very happy.”

The Scot threatened more when he began with five birdies in his first seven holes but could not keep the momentum going and although he only dropped one shot on the back nine – not surprisingly at the 17th – he did not create any realistic chances for birdies which would have given him hope of the title.

Webster, meanwhile, spent the bulk of the winter working with coach Pete Cowen in Dubai and admitted he felt no effects of rust and was looking for a fast start to the season. Beginning the final round only one shot off the lead, he harboured real hopes of his maiden European Tour victory, but just could not take enough of his opportunities to get close to his playing partner Immelman.

“I am a little disappointed to have finished second to be honest because I did fancy my chances this week,” said the Englishman. “But you have to take your chances when they arrive in this game and I didn’t. That’s golf.”

South African Darren Fichardt took fourth place on seven under par 281 after a closing 70 while the English duo of David Carter and Miles Tunnicliff, alongside Australia’s Marcus Fraser and Raphaël Jacquelin of France shared fifth on 282.

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