Will it hold?

As Woods flounders and Mickelson lurks, Immelman doing improbable

On The Masters

April 12, 2008|By RICK MAESE

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's all somewhat deceptive. The postcard scenery. The piano and violins, sounds that only exist in department stores and at the Masters. And the hushed TV voices that can make a recitation of a Chinese food menu sound dramatic and momentous.

Forget the gentle and poignant theater. Thus far, exclamation points and guitar riffs have littered the first leg of Tiger Woods' Grand Slam chase like a series of speed bumps. As we'll likely learn even further today, most of them surround three men: a Tiger, a Lefty and a nobody.

Woods, who has had closet space for a fifth green jacket cleared for him by just about everyone on the planet, would have to mount a remarkable comeback to win. The closest to a rival he has had on the PGA Tour, Phil Mickelson, is poised to pounce midway through the tournament. And atop the leader board is perhaps the biggest surprise of all, a guy who knows a thing or two about impressive comebacks.

As the Masters begins third-round play this morning, I'm not sure what's more striking - who's leading the tournament or who isn't. Trevor Immelman, the 28-year-old South African, has no more business being at the top of the leader board than Woods has being lost nearer the middle of it.

Woods has to make up seven shots in two days. Is it possible? Well, history's on his side, even if his driver isn't. Jack Burke Jr. recovered from an eight-stroke deficit after 36 holes in 1956. Woods' best comeback here came in 2005, when he was seven shots off the pace after the first day, eventually beating Chris DeMarco in a playoff.

Through two rounds of this year's tournament, Woods is at 1-under-par, tied with seven others for 13th place. The last golfer to climb after 36 holes from outside the top 10 to the green jacket ceremony was Jack Nicklaus in 1986.

"You just got to stay patient," Woods said. "This golf course, anything can happen. You can come back pretty quickly here."

Though Woods has been steady these first two days, he has shown few signs that he's about to make up such a large margin. If he stands a chance, it's much more likely that the top of the field gradually comes to him.

Frankly, I would find that to be a lot more believable than what we've seen out of Immelman the past two days. The past year, really.

OK, contract a parasite the night before last year's Masters begins. Visit the hospital, live off fluids and toast, and still somehow make the cut. Yeah, I can maybe believe that.

And sure, as that parasite lingers, lose 22 pounds, miss a month of golf and return to the game. Believable? Sure.

But go under the doctor's knife, have a tumor the size of a Titleist - benign, thankfully - removed from your diaphragm, and earn a seven-inch scar and six more weeks away from the game for your efforts ... and somehow come out here 4 1/2 months later and fire back-to-back 68s? Well, someone cue the piano and violins, please.

"I'm so competitive, and I've played this game since I was 5 years old," Immelman said. "And all I ever wanted to do was win golf tournaments. So I kind of felt like it was just a speed bump, really, you know, because I just wanted to keep going."

To be more precise, it looks like he has been loaned Woods' talent. How else do you explain what Immelman has done thus far? This is a guy who's ranked No. 120 on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy but has hit 25 of 28 fairways entering today, second in the field? And who's No. 202 in putting average but is averaging just 1.5 putts a hole through two rounds, tied for sixth?

Since posting a third-round 65 at the 2005 Masters, Immelman hadn't had a round here better than 73 and missed the cut in 2006. In his five Masters appearances, Immelman is a combined 49-over in 16 total rounds.

Which means every player whose name is under his on the leader board is sure of two things: Immelman is not just an unlikely leader; he's a susceptible target. I like the idea of a guy leaving the hospital and trading a hospital gown for a green jacket as much as the next guy, but the final two days of the Masters is make-a-shot, not Make-a-Wish.

While Woods is within striking distance, no player wakes up this morning licking his chops quite like Mickelson, whose 4-under 68 left him in a tie for third and three strokes behind Immelman.

"I feel pretty good," Mickelson said. "I would rather be leading. I would like to have some shots in hand. But I've hit the ball well, and I've been playing well."

Immelman has already impressed us with his comebacks. This weekend in Augusta, count on one more. One more exclamation point.

But count on it coming from someone else. And count on it being histrionic, if not historic.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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