Immelman feels like the defending champ going into the BMW Championship

Tim Cronin

When last seen in action at Cog Hill, Trevor Immelman was crashing to the turf on the 18th green, doing a half-roll and springing back to his feet, his way of reacting to sinking a maddeningly difficult 32-foot putt to bring last year’s Western Open to a rousing climax.

Immelman returns this week as defending champion to the same course, but the championship is much different, from the name -- it is impossible to find the words “Western Open” on display at Cog Hill unless you look at old pictures or the record book -- to the qualification standard. Unlike past years, when Tour regulars mixed with a handful of qualifiers and those invited by the Western Golf Association, only the top 70 leaders in the FedEx Cup points standings are eligible.

Plus, it’s September, when football is in the air; not July, the time interest in golf is at its peak in Chicago. And next year, the Western/BMW will be played out of town, in St. Louis, the first time since 1960 that the Chicago area will not have a PGA Tour stop.

With all that, the question begged to be asked of Immelman. Does he consider himself the tournament’s defending champion?

“I definitely feel like a defending champion,” Immelman said on a recent visit to Cog Hill. “I think this is a great situation for this tournament. To have a tournament of this magnitude and this much history, to team up with a company like BMW, I think it’s a win-win situation for both parties.

“I think it being a playoff event and the third event in the playoff series, it’s only going to add to its luster. I feel very honored to be the defending champion.”

Unfortunately for Immelman, the traditional massive photo poster of the previous year’s winner isn’t up at the entrance to Cog Hill this year. That doesn’t fit the BMW look. That shouldn’t bother Immelman, a 27-year-old who has proved this year he’s a fellow who can roll with the punches. He’s bounced back from a nasty stomach virus, which took him off his game after a very promising start to the season.

Immelman had finished third in the champions-only season opener at Kapalua, Hawaii, and made it to the semifinals of the Tour’s match-play tournament as well, winning nearly a million dollars in just those two tournaments. But after a ninth-place finish at Bay Hill in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his game went south, thanks to his health.

For a short time, it was scary. His doctor first classified his illness as food poisoning -- Immelman even spent Wednesday morning of Masters week in the hospital -- but eventually diagnosed it as a stomach virus. Why he contracted it, nobody knows, but he didn’t play for a month, was finally told to fast for a few days, and was limited to Jell-O when he began eating again.

“It was a pretty crazy time, a four- or five-week period where I was just really ill and dropping weight at a rapid speed, so it was a little concerning,” Immelman said. “I’m 100 percent now. What I’m working on is getting back to my fighting weight, if you will.”

He was 10 pounds short of his usual 170 in July, but regained all his strength, if not the weight, by mid-August, when he finished tied for sixth in the PGA Championship, conducted in the sweltering heat of Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club.

Immelman has showed no reluctance to take on the schedule that calls for participants in the playoffs to play four straight weeks, of which this is the third. Like many players, he prepped for Southern Hills by playing at Firestone Country Club the week before.

Two weeks after the Tour Championship in Atlanta (for which he’s just outside the top 30 in points, sitting 38th), there’s the President’s Cup in Montreal (Sept. 27-30), where the native of South Africa will play for fellow South African Gary Player as a member of the International squad. That will make it seven tournaments in nine weeks, and that’s fine with Immelman.

“At this point in my career, it’s probably more than what I would normally play, but if I had to take you back a few years, there were stages where I was playing eight, nine, 10 events in a row on the European Tour,” Immelman said. “I’m not too concerned. A lot of times it works out well for you; you can gain some momentum and put in good work into your game.

“Because you played the week before you may get rid of some of the nerves, you get rid of some of the cobwebs, by the time the gun goes off on Thursday you feel comfortable and go out there concentrating on shooting low scores. It’s going to be demanding, but I think that’s good in a way, because for somebody to come away and win the FedEx Cup, to get that pot of gold at the end of those four weeks, you probably should go through some adversity.”

Immelman, well before Tiger Woods decided to skip the first playoff tournament, decreed that Woods was not only the man to beat, but the man who could sweep.

“I know Tiger is fit enough to play four or 10 in a row or could play every damn week,” Immelman said. “He’s ready for whatever gets thrown at him.”

So, in his own way, has Immelman been ready this year. Unlike a few players, he’s even favoring the PGA Tour’s plan to implement drug testing next year, a process Player said was needed during the British Open. For saying he knew a player was using performance-enhancing drugs, Player caught criticism.

“I don’t think he was trying to be vindictive to anybody or trying to take any attention away from the Open Championship,” Immelman said. “I think he was speaking from his heart and trying the uphold the integrity of the sport.

“I don’t think we have a problem at all. I haven’t heard or seen anything to give me evidence that there is a problem. I think we should just go ahead and do the testing and get it over and done with. That way you guys can stop asking questions, whoever in the public is wondering can stop asking questions, and know we are a clean sport, and that’s the way it is.”

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