Player inspires Immelman

Augusta, Georgia  - Trevor Immelman's special relationship with his iconic countryman Gary Player goes back a long time.

"There's been a lot of people that are extremely important in my life," said Immelman, moments after winning the Masters Tournament Sunday.

"But you know, I first met him when I was 5 years old, at my home club in Somerset West (South Africa). I have a great picture - he picked me up and put me on his shoulders. I have no teeth. That was the first time I met him."

Over the years, Player took an interest in Immelman and stayed in touch.

The little kid with the toothless grin couldn't get enough of golf. He was a scratch player by the age of 12. His family did everything they could to support his drive, making sacrifices, encouraging his ambition.

At the same time, Player did not forget that first meeting. He, too, realized there was something about the young boy, something passionate, something promising. He, too, fanned the flames.

"He kept writing me notes, and he kept answering my calls and my letters to him," said Immelman, 28.

"He was always there for support and advice. And after I turned pro, he was there for a kick in the butt when I wasn't playing well or he saw something that he didn't like. He's been, you know, kind of like another type of father for me. To have somebody like that for support is just incredible."

So it was that when Immelman faced the biggest day of his golfing life, when he left Augusta National Saturday evening with a two- stroke lead after 54 holes in the season's first major championship, his mentor was there for him again.

"He left me a voicemail last night," Immelman said. "I got it when I was leaving the premises, and it gave me goose bumps. He told me he unfortunately had to leave - he's on his way to the Middle East to do something over there. And he said he wouldn't be able to watch the coverage.

"But he told he believed in me, and I needed to believe in myself. He told me I had to keep my head a little quieter when I putt. ... He told me to just go out there and be strong through adversity. Because he said adversity would come today, and I had to deal with it."

The words were exactly what Immelman needed to hear. In the final round, he dealt with adversity, overcame some bumps in the road, and became the second South African to win the Masters, after Player, who won the tournament three times.

"I took that all to heart, and I'm obviously very thankful," said Immelman, the first wire-to-wire winner at Augusta since Seve Ballesteros in 1980. "I'm sure he's proud of me."

At the same time, Immelman was humble about his accomplishment. He knows that winning a major can change one's life. He said he can only hope to be the kind of ambassador for the game that Player has been.

"I'm going to try to do all the right things, and I'm going to try to be a great role model to young kids out there," Immelman said. "You know, that's all I can do."

That's what Gary Player did. (dpa)