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Sunday, April 5, 2009
Augusta return had 'goosebump' feel

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

For many, a visit to Augusta National is an awe-inspiring experience, even for those who play in the Masters Tournament. Trevor Immelman, the defending champion, knows all about it.

That is why he wanted to get back to the club sometime before the start of the 2009 edition of the year's first major.

He did not want his first drive down Magnolia Lane since winning, his first visit to the manor clubhouse, his first trek through Amen Corner, to occur with thousands of people in attendance, the tournament about to begin.

So he visited earlier this spring, when the ground was still thawing, when Masters talk had yet to fully heat up.

"I'm a pretty emotional person as it is, so I fully expected it," Immelman said recently. "That was one of the reasons that I wanted to go. I wanted to get back there and try and take it all in and try and deal with some of the thoughts that would go through my mind. You know, it was everything I expected it to be. It was a fantastic weekend."

It is one of the perks of being a Masters champion.

In addition to the lifetime invitation, the green jacket, the champions locker room and certainly the worldwide fame that goes with being a major champion, winning the Masters means an honorary Augusta membership.

Those with tournament invitations can visit for practice rounds, but Masters winners can bring guests, and that is what Immelman did earlier this year, as his caddie and brother accompanied him to the place where he overcame difficult final-round conditions to win by 3 strokes over Tiger Woods.

And going back meant a return of all kinds of memories.

"The whole weekend was like that," said Immelman, 29. "I mean, from arriving at the gates, being welcomed by the security guards, walking into the clubhouse, speaking to all the staff, reminiscing with all the staff. I mean, the whole weekend was just absolutely goose-bump stuff. From walking into the clubhouse and seeing the trophy with my name on it, seeing my picture on the Wall of Champions, you know, all that kind of stuff was just surreal, really.

"I think anytime any golfer who plays Augusta National has the opportunity to play Augusta National, every hole you reminisce. But in my case not just about shots that I've hit there, and in particular last year, but all the shots you've seen on TV over the years. [Jack] Nicklaus holing certain putts, [Tom] Watson holing certain putts, [Gary] Player holing certain putts, Tiger hitting certain shots, hitting different clubs into par-5s and stuff like that.

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"That's one of the beauties of Augusta National. Very similar to the Old Course, where there's just so much history behind it. Anytime you play there, you have all sorts of memories flooding back. It really was a great weekend for me. Obviously, to be able to enjoy it with my brother and my caddie and some of the members was really fantastic, something that I'll never forget."

What Immelman really wants to recapture is the kind of golf he played in winning the tournament. He slept on the lead for three nights and had gotten to 11 under par through three rounds, leading the field in greens in regulation and finding a putting stroke that had been missing for most of the year.

When Sunday's final round brought raw, windy conditions, Immelman managed to compose himself despite the difficult playing conditions. Although he shot a 3-over 75, he still won the tournament by 3 strokes over Woods.

And he became only the second South African, after Player, to win the Masters.

During a practice round on the eve of last year's Masters, it was Player who told Immelman that "you've got the best swing in the world. … You've got to go out there and win this tournament this week."

Player also left an inspirational voice mail message for Immelman the night before the final round and has been one of his biggest supporters.

Immelman could use some more of that karma right about now.

Since winning the Masters, his only top-10 came in Memphis last June, when he lost in a sudden-death playoff to Justin Leonard. His best finish this year was a tie for 19th at the Transitions Championship.

But he had done nothing before last year's Masters, either, having come back from surgery in the offseason to remove a benign tumor on his rib cage.

And his best finish of the year heading into Augusta was a tie for 40th.

"I've made a few changes in my offseason, things that I'd like to work on," he said. "My game is feeling great in practice, but I haven't quite found a way to take it to the tournament yet.

"I've always had some tendencies that have cropped up that I have to fight. I just try to make some adjustments to be able to work with that and to be able to become a little bit more consistent. I've always believed that if you're not striving to improve, you're going to get left behind."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.