Immelman and the sweet breath of lifeAUGUSTA, Ga. - They say there are no atheists in a foxhole. You think of Normandy, Anzio, Khe Sanh, Najaf and all such forsaken places where the crepe of history hangs heavy, and it seems there is nothing like the hum of a passing bullet to reaffirm one's grip on the meaning of life.
Such places are a long way from the sweet life of golf, from acres of green and flowers and polite people, from the intoxicating riches, from the joys of the birdie to the greatest fear and the most extreme pain - missing the cut. The touring pros, the darlings of chic apparel and courtesy cars, are wrapped in sweet insulation against the fears and pains of every-day life.
This is, of course, an illusion, as Trevor Immelman, who took the lead in the second round of the Masters Friday, will testify. You know - after that mysterious stabbing pain he had in his ribs last December. Yes, it is a sweet life. Even so, when fate does find the golfer - as it must - the golfer comes to the realization that there's more to life than chasing the little white ball for fun and profit. That's pretty much the way they all put it. Or as Paul Azinger noted, when the doctors found the cancer, “ … everything I had accomplished in golf was meaningless.”
Immelman was one happy South African Friday, after a second 68. He could recall last year's Masters, when he was bent in pain and convulsed in severe nausea. It was only an abdominal bug. It cost him 20 pounds. For a guy who started at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, that was a significant loss of ballast for the windy days. He muddled through and was a small miracle at finishing in a tie for 55th.
“Last year, I got a little unfortunate with the stomach bug, so that's just one of those things - bad timing,” Immelman said.
The bright time came early last December, when he won the Nedbank Challenge, his third victory at home in South Africa. The future was looking bright. Then the following week, he was in the hospital, wondering whether he even had a future.
Immelman got the fright of his life during the South African Airways Open last December. He had to withdraw after two holes. He was fighting for breath, and it was as though he had a knife or something in his ribs, it hurt that much in the simple, automatic act of breathing. These were not good signs for a guy just turning 28, who previously had no reason to suspect a threat to his health, and who had a wife and a young son to think about. This would require some doctoring.
The cardiothoracic surgeon discovered that there was a growth the size of a golf ball, but not on his ribs, on his diaphragm. Immelman was stunned. Doctors removed the tumor, and huddled to study it. Immelman, who just so recently had trouble breathing, now was holding his breath, waiting for the sentence.
“I went from winning a golf tournament to lying in a hospital bed waiting for the results on a tumor,” Immelman said.
He could count his days maybe on one hand.
“Well, let's see,” Immelman said. “We had the MRI done on a Thursday morning, and we got the results that night. The doctor said there was something that had to come out.
“I went in for surgery only on a Tuesday because there was a public holiday weekend down in South Africa, so we waited for that to be over.
“I waited on the Tuesday, around mid-day, and two days later, we got the results after the surgery.”
Ah, that precious verdict. The tumor was benign.
“You know, it definitely gives you perspective,” Immelman said. “It definitely made me realize, that golf wasn't my whole life. But you know, I have a real passion for golf, and I made a lot of sacrifices to try to succeed. I'm definitely driven to try and achieve things, so while it gave me perspective on the one point, I was still trying to get back to the form I was showing before it all happened.”
There's one other thing. Now, anytime Immelman's breath catches, it's a wedge that misses the green or a ball heading for the high vegetation. These are things that can be corrected and they do not leave a 7-inch scar.
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