Keeping Score

Willett, Immelman hint at Masterly form

GULLANE, Scotland – Two reclamation projects found Gullane Golf Club to their liking last week, and one almost parlayed his good play into a British Open invitation.

Danny Willett already had secured an invitation to Carnoustie for this week’s 147th British Open by virtue of his 2016 Masters victory. Trevor Immelman also was planning to travel two hours northward on Scotland’s east coast to Carnoustie, but not necessarily as a player. He was scheduled to be part of the NBC/Golf Channel crew covering the British Open.

At No. 1,380 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Immelman, the 2008 Masters winner, has not shown much game in years. His last victory on a major tour came in 2013, at the Web.com Tour’s Hotel Fitness Championship. He wasn’t given serious consideration for playing back-to-back tournaments in Scotland.

But with a final-round 5-under 65 on Sunday at the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, Immelman, 38, of South Africa, found himself on the cusp of claiming the third exemption, behind winner Brandon Stone of South Africa and England’s Eddie Pepperell (scores).

But as fate would have it, Immelman tied for third with American Luke List, who already held a spot for Carnoustie, and Jens Dantorp of Sweden. Dantorp, at No. 322 in the world, earned the British Open berth because of his higher position in the OWGR.

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Trevor Immelman finds flashes of his winning form from a decade ago, narrowly missing out on a British Open berth.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Trevor Immelman finds flashes of his winning form from a decade ago, narrowly missing out on a British Open berth.

For Immelman, being on a leaderboard for the past three days was a nice change. He concedes that his game is not good enough anymore to compete at an elite level, so he has begun the transition to television as an analyst on Golf Channel. Immelman nearly has retired from any sort of a competitive comeback, but he still finds himself with a gnawing desire to play professionally.

Immelman hits balls on off days from his TV duty, and he plays golf with son Jacob, 12, in Orlando, Fla. Immelman still works at his game, but the fall – from major champion and No. 12 in the world – has been dramatic.

Immelman started the year in much the same manner as he had played 2017, when he missed cuts in 13 of 14 starts. He missed consecutive cuts in South Africa and Abu Dhabi and ranked 1929th in the world.

Since the beginning of 2015, Immelman has played in 59 events worldwide, before Scotland. During that stretch he has missed 46 cuts and not recorded a top 10. Leading into Scotland, Immelman missed the weekend at the French Open and was DQ’d for having signed for a lower score in the Irish Open. The Scottish Open was his third consecutive week of competition on the European Tour.

“That passion and sort of glimmer of hope, it's always going to be there,” Immelman said. “It's very, very hard for athletes to get rid of that. I believe that there's something in there, and that's one of the reasons that they have become good in the first place. They have something in there deep down.”

With his game fading, Immelman turns philosophical about his journey.

“I think the greatest, most consistent golfers are the ones that can roll with the punches and brush that stuff off, and they have great short games to be able to save them,” Immelman said. “We're all our own worst critics eventually, and that stems from, for the most part, we are all perfectionists. Being a perfectionist, it's an interesting journey because for the first half of it when you're acquiring your skill, it really drives you to become great. But once you've acquired your skill and you've maybe reached a high level, from that point on it really starts hurting you because you start to be way too tough on yourself. In a game like this, where the margins are so tight, all the little things that have to go right for you to play well, if you are too hard on yourself mentally, it can eat you alive. So that's why, that mental balance in there, it's very, very delicate.”

Although Willett retains a British Open exempt through 2021, he has struggled in the two years since winning at Augusta National. He slowly has been finding the equilibrium needed to compete at the highest levels again, posting two top 10s in his four starts before Scotland.

“There were certain times last year when I woke up in pain; … I didn’t want to play golf,” said Willett, whose injuries included the left rotator cuff, back and knee issues. “There was no point in playing. Shooting 75 and being injured at the same time wasn’t great fun. So, it’s nice to be able to wake up in a morning, play average and shoot 68 with the body feeling fine. There’s a lot of work that has gone into it.”

Willett shot four rounds in the 60s, including a closing 4-under 66, at Gullane and tied for 19th in the Scottish Open. He no longer is chewing pain pills and starting to look more like the player who surged to No. 9 in the world in late 2016 than the one who plummeted to No. 462 two months ago.

Willett will head to Carnoustie not only with a burgeoning game but with the confidence that he is doing the right things again.

“I’ve changed a lot of stuff, and it’s a full different team I’m working with,” said Willett, who dropped his management company, switched caddies and hired swing instructor Sean Foley. “Things are in a good place. I just have to keep doing the things that have got me back here mentally and physically.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli


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