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Immelman's name stands out on list of comeback candidates

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Unfamiliar names dot the practice range, putting green, pairings printout and the Las Vegas odds sheet.

This week's Sony Open marks the first full-field event of the season on the PGA Tour, and the rookies are whaling away in full force, like those 40 mph tradewinds.

Beware falling coconuts
As the PGA Tour stages its first full-field event in Hawaii, here's a list of several stars -- recent Ryder and Presidents cup players, all but one with a major or Players Championship title on their personal resume -- who have fallen out of their world-ranking trees since last January.
-- Steve Elling

Player Jan. '10 Jan. '11 Drop
Mike Weir 36 180 -144
Trevor Immelman 136 273 -137
Justin Leonard 44 125 -81
Stephen Ames 57 129 -72
Vijay Singh 26 95 -69
Kenny Perry 10 78 -68
Sergio Garcia 12 79 -67
Henrik Stenson 7 54 -47
Lucas Glover 20 63 -43

To wit, there are 26 rookies in the field, and 23 of the 25 players who were promoted from the Nationwide Tour after last season cracked the starting lineup, too. Obviously, fresh storylines abound in a sport that forever has embraced its flavors of the month, guys who might eventually turn out to be the next big thing.

Sprinkled among those experiencing the game's annual rites of passage are those addressing the wrongs that sent them in another career direction entirely.

Sony is both about coming out and coming back, starting out and starting over. The host club, Waialae, is for the waylaid, too, the island starting point of recovery for a raft of players who were lost for much of 2010.

The field includes veterans such as Vijay Singh and Justin Leonard, former major championship winners who are now marooned outside the top 90 in the world golf rankings and seemingly headed in the wrong direction.

Leonard and the Hall of Fame Fijian experienced two of the biggest falloffs in the 12 months between the first rankings of 2010 and this week, though they were hardly alone. Sweden's Henrik Stenson skidded from No. 7 to outside the top 50, former world No. 2 Sergio Garcia fell to No. 79 and injured Canadian star Mike Weir toppled into a dark abyss, dropping 144 spots to No. 180.

As with baseball, with the full-field fare now starting, this is when hope springs eternal -- which is only partly about Bob Hope and Palm Springs, where Trevor Immelman is aiming to begin his comeback effort next week.

While plenty of big names sputtered in 2010, Immelman dropped 137 spots in the rankings last year to No. 273 and hasn't had much to crow about since winning the Masters in 2008.

"I am just excited to get back out there," Immelman said. "I feel like a rookie again. It's cool."

He's not referring to two years of ice treatments on his injured wrist, either. After exploring every nonsurgical option available, ranging from rehabbing to cortisone jabbing, Immelman had extensive surgery on his left hand in the fall of 2009 and has barely been noticed since.

They cleaned up cartilage issues, scraped away some bone, fiddled with a tendon and then told him to wait for it to regenerate. Immelman, who enjoys banging around on his music-room drum kit when not on the road, put both his career and favorite hobby in park.

In a sport that waits for no man, and is always hungry to identify the next rising star, the South African is trying to find the silver linings in a career where gold was always his standard.

"There was lot of good, too," he said of his forced time off. "I got to spend a lot of time with my family and really reconnect with everybody, start thinking about how I want to grow my brand, what I want to do after golf. There were a lot of good things that came out of it, too.

"At the heart and soul of it, I want to be out there competing in golf tournaments, but it gave me time to think and reflect about things beyond golf."

Trevor Immelman says it's always his goal to be full speed in April when the Masters rolls around. (Getty Images)  
Trevor Immelman says it's always his goal to be full speed in April when the Masters rolls around. (Getty Images)  
Immelman played with gritted teeth for several months before surrendering to surgeons. At that point, the status of his left wrist was out of his hands, if you will. Like tour counterpart Arron Oberholser, who has been battling a career-threatening wrist issue for three years, Immelman became an impatient patient.

"It's a tricky place to have surgery because there are so many bones and tendons, and obviously the healing process is longer because there's not enough blood really going into the area for it to heal quickly," Immelman said. "It's just a lot of rest and care. It's just frustrating."

Immelman admittedly rushed back as fast as he could and played four months later, an attempt to get his game in order for the Masters. Playing as much on adrenaline as anything, he finished T14 at Augusta, easily his most impressive performance of 2010, given the background. In all, he played 19 times on the PGA Tour and missed nine of his last 12 cuts.

Wrist injuries are as common as ibuprofen among professionals. Chalk it up to simple wear and tear, like rubber degrading on a set of tires.

"There was no one shot or one action," he said. "It was just 25 years of abuse. That was it, really. It just got to the point where surgery was really the only option. I had to get it done."

It won't take long to see whether Immelman can get still it done on the course. He plans on playing in four or five West Coast events, starting either next week at the Hope or at Torrey Pines on Jan. 27, and has designs on playing 28 events globally this year.

"I'm starting to feel like I am getting to the end of it and I can move forward again," he said in December. "I would say that in the last eight-nine weeks, when I wake up in the morning, I am not thinking about it, and that's a start. Obviously I am still doing all the rehab and the icing and all the maintenance stuff, but I don't have to worry or think about it anymore.

"I don't have to count the amount of balls anymore, stuff like that. I used to not be able to hit balls for longer than an hour."

Indoors, he's still a beast. Immelman, whose exercise regimen would make most men faint, has been going at it in the gym without restriction for weeks.

"We haven't been holding back," said David Herman, his longtime trainer. "I think this is going to be a huge comeback year for him. He's doing everything he needs to do."

Fortunately for Immelman, the surgery occurred when he had a lengthy exemption for winning a major in his pocket -- he has a lifetime exemption on the European Tour -- and at a relatively young age, 29.

"There has never been a panic at any point, you know, because I am still only [31] and feel like my best stuff is ahead of me," Immelman said.

No panic, but this comeback feels a bit manic. Immelman is going to play like a fiend in an attempt to be ready for the spring, when a certain place in Georgia hands out green jackets.

"I want to get going and be in the swing of things by the time Augusta rolls around, because I love Augusta National, I know the golf course really well, and I am probably my most comfortable on that golf course," he said, his excitement palpable. "I would like to be in the best possible shape going into that week.

"I definitely feel like if things are going my way, I have got a chance around there. That's going to be the goal of the rest of my career, to make sure I am ready come April."

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