Immelman has special connection with Clemson football program
December 01, 2020
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Trevor Immelman at a Clemson football game with Jonathan Byrd (center) and Lucas Glover (right). (Tigernet.com)
A year ago, Trevor Immelman spent part of the fall playing on the European Tour. His travels took him to Portugal, Italy, Scotland, England, Germany and Switzerland, among other places.
To say that itinerary presented some unique challenges would be an understatement. Not because of language differences and travel snafus, though.
Immelman, you see, is a big Clemson football fan. So, Saturdays, in particular, required some advance planning before he got to the first tee and after the round was over.
“I'm having to figure out all these different apps and stuff so that I can watch them play,” he says, laughing heartily. “With the time change, you're getting up early in the morning or watching late at night.”
Immelman has followed Clemson, currently ranked fourth in the country, since a chance meeting with the Tigers’ head coach, Dabo Swinney, in 2008, which was the same year the South African won the Masters. The two have become good friends in the years since.
Immelman was introduced to Swinney by his close friend and fellow South African, Rich Davies. Davies, a commercial real estate developer who now lives in Charlotte, was a talented soccer, rugby and cricket player as a kid. He ended up going to Clemson and was a kicker on the football team in the early 1980s.
“We were going down on a fishing trip in the Gulf with Rich and his family,” Immelman recalls. “And I was down there for like a day and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got this friend coming in. He's one of the assistant coaches at Clemson. You're going to love this guy. You guys are going to get on great.
“And I was like, okay. But I didn't really follow football college football that much.”
Not that Immelman didn’t know football -- he actually was an NFL fan. About the same time Davies was playing at Clemson, Immelman’s family had moved from South Africa to Arlington, Texas where the Dallas Cowboys are headquartered.
But he had no such college allegiance, which was hard for Swinney to understand.
“I was trying to explain to him that in universities in South Africa you don't go to play sports,” Immelman says. “You go to get an education. ... If you're good at sport in South Africa, you join a club. ... And then those clubs have leagues, and that's how you get your competition in and then you enter tournaments.
“Whereas the system in the U.S. -- it's a fantastic system, but it's just totally different because sport is just so massive here and it's just so successful. ... People are so vested in it because they all went to their different schools. They become fans for life. ...
“But he found it so interesting that I didn't follow college football. He was like, well, I've got a team for you to support.”
Swinney became the Tigers’ interim head coach in October of 2008 when Tommy Bowden resigned, then had the interim removed from his title two months later as Clemson prepared for a Gator Bowl date with Nebraska. Immelman was buoyed by his new friend’s success.
“When I first met him and his boys and his wife, they have this infectious enthusiasm and personality, all of them,” Immelman says. “And it was exactly like my friend Rich said to me -- immediately we just had stuff in common. We saw things a similar way. ...
“And I was kind of at the height of me playing and being like right in the trenches, trying to try to compete as well. And so, it was just such cool timing to then see him take this step and then see him, I guess, survive through that period where he was the interim coach and get hired full time.”
Swinney, for his part, was struck by what a competitor Immelman was. He remembers watching the College World Series with the South African during that first fishing trip.
“He was just sitting there, and I don't know if he knows a lot about baseball or not,” Swinney recalls. “They were changing pitchers and the way the pitcher came in, the demeanor of the pitcher, it really bothered him. And he was just like, well, there's no way this team's winning. ...
“And of course, that turned out to be the case. He’s a great competitor and a fun guy. ... And it’s just pretty cool that he chose the Tigers to be his team.”
Swinney even asked Immelman, who will captain the Internationals at the 2022 Presidents Cup, to speak to the Clemson football team prior to the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando where the Tigers put a 40-6 whipping on Oklahoma.
“He understands competition at a high level and the type of mindset that you have to have,” Swinney explains. “You don't win the Masters and stare down Tiger and all of them, and that drive down that 18th fairway and all of that pressure, if you don't have mental toughness and a certain mindset and focus.
“Those things translate to any competitive situation, whether it be football or whatever. But you know, he knows a lot about football. He's become a very astute fan and knowledgeable.”
Immelman was quick to point out that his speech was “nothing Rudy-like.” He and his son Jake had been watching practice and “Coach called me in,” the two-time PGA TOUR champion remembered.
“It was basically me telling them how much I love watching them and how inspiring it is to watch them,” Immelman says. “And having the opportunities that they have to play in big games like that is something that they'll remember forever and 20, 30, 40 years from now, they're going to look back on those times fondly. So, give it your best. Don't leave anything out there.
“It's been a lot of fun for us as a family to just to feel like you're a tiny little part and a fan of the program and just to see the success they've had.”
While its September date conflicts with football, Immelman would love to have Swinney give his International Team a pep talk during the Presidents Cup. Clemson, South Carolina, is only a couple of hours from Charlotte, where the biennial event is being played at Quail Hollow Club.
At the same time, though, Immelman says he would need to figure out how many players on his diverse team understand American football. Even so, he’s thinks he’s learned a lot from the way Swinney “shepherds” his team, which Immelman calls a “gift,” that will help him prepare for the Presidents Cup.
“He's such an amazing leader,” Immelman says. “But he also doesn't put himself before the team. He always puts the team and others before himself. And I think because of that people just gravitate towards him and they want to give him their best.
“Just seeing him pull that off with 18- to 22-year-olds for the last decade, there's got to be something there. It's not a fluke. He does it with freshmen and he does it with people that stay four years, five years. ... He doesn't lead in a forceful way. You always get the feeling that he loves his team.”
Beyond football, the two men have also bonded on the golf course. While Swinney says he doesn’t know his handicap, Immelman estimated it at between a 7 and a 12 or 13. He says the 50-year-old Clemson coach is fun to have in your foursome because he always “picks everybody up.”
“He’s got a solid game all around,” Immelman says. “He's got a lot of speed. He's in good shape. He can still get it out there. Yeah, his whole game is pretty solid.”
Swinney calls himself, simply, a “good average, average golfer.”
“I'm a good scramble player because I'm capable of hitting some shots and scoring some points, but I don't even know what my handicap would be,” he says. “That's how bad a golfer I am. But I do like to play.”
The two played together once in the Wells Fargo Championship pro-am. And just like Immelman – complete in his orange Nike gear – tries to attend several Clemson games each year, Swinney did his best to get to Quail Hollow to see his friend when he was still competing regularly on the PGA TOUR.
The Tigers have played in four of the last six national championship games, winning twice, beating the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide each time. Immelman and his family were there with Davies and some other friends when Clemson won in 2016, which he calls an “amazing experience.
“That was his vision for the school,” Immelman says, the pride evident in his voice. “He 100 percent believed that that was possible for them to achieve.”
What impresses Immelman the most, though, is not all the victories and bowl wins and undefeated seasons Swinney has been the architect of at Clemson. It’s the young men his players become.
“Everybody loves winning,” he says. “But he invests so much time and effort and his priority is always to help raise the best men and citizens and people in the program that he can. That is always the number one priority for him. And he's never going to cut any corners that could hurt that.
“What I mean by that is it's important for him to help these student athletes just become the best human beings that they can. And he believes that if he does that, then he's going to put them in the best situation to try and achieve whatever sporting goals that they have.
“I've met very few people that have their priorities so clear and stick to them so in such a disciplined way.”