Gripping debut for DiMarco

Masters rookie leads first round with 7-under 65

Woods is five back

Odd putting stroke rejuvenates game

9 within 3 strokes

April 06, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The list is filled with the not-so-rich and not-quite-famous, the long-forgotten and barely remembered.

It is a list that dates back to the first Masters, when the tournament was still called the Augusta National Invitation and a fellow named Emmet French found himself in a three-way tie for the lead with an opening-round 70. French shot 83 the next day, withdrew and never came back.

PGA Tour journeyman Chris DiMarco joined the list yesterday at the 65th Masters, becoming the third player here in as many years and the 16th in history to make his Masters debut with a share or sole possession of the first-round lead.

At 7-under-par 65, DiMarco leads by one stroke over Steve Stricker and Angel Cabrera of Argentina. Two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, Phil Mickelson and John Huston were two strokes behind. Four others - Kirk Triplett, Chris Perry, Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain and amateur James Driscoll - each shot 68.

Defending champion Vijay Singh was at 3-under 69 with 1998 champion Mark O'Meara, Jim Furyk and Scott Verplank. Tiger Woods, looking to become the first player in history to win four straight majors, made a couple of appearances on the leader board.

At 2-under 70, Woods is tied with five others, including two Spaniards, two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia, as well as former PGA champions Paul Azinger and Mark Brooks, plus rising European star Thomas Bjorn of Denmark.

How is it being atop the leader board?

"It feels pretty good," DiMarco said. I hope it's there on Sunday. That's the main goal. Obviously, you cannot win the tournament today. You just put yourself in position to not lose the tournament, and I did that today."

DiMarco, 32, is aware history is against him. History says it's more likely he will fade than go on to become the first Masters rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 or the first to win here wire-to-wire since Raymond Floyd three years before that.

But the player some of his peers call "Psycho" - short for "Psycho Grip," for his unconventional putting stroke - is as confident as Dennis Paulson was last year when he led after each of the first two rounds before finishing in a respectable tie for 14th.

"Experience is obviously very big," said DiMarco, who earned his first invitation by moving into the Top 20 on the PGA Tour money list last year, finishing 17th with more than $1.8 million. "I'd love to have three or four years behind me Sunday afternoon or even tomorrow afternoon. I don't."

Yesterday's round, like DiMarco, didn't come completely out of nowhere.

"I had a good week last week, one swing on the last hole and I finished second or third and who knows - or sixth," DiMarco said of the BellSouth Classic, where he was in contention the first three rounds.

DiMarco is a late bloomer, having turned pro in 1990 after playing at the University of Florida. He led the Canadian Tour in earnings in 1992, and had a decent rookie year on the PGA Tour in 1994. He went back to the Nike Tour in 1996. He moved steadily up the money list since rejoining the tour in 1998.

Until last year's Pennsylvania Classic victory, DiMarco was better known for driving a beat-up van painted in Florida's school colors. He also was known for the grip that features a clawed right hand, which he learned from tour pro Skip Kendall in 1995.

"It was no fun anymore," DiMarco recalled of a year when he won a little less than $75,000 in 33 tournaments, finishing 245th on the money list. "It was so much of a struggle from five feet in. I looked at him and said, `Boy, like what's that?' "

The next time DiMarco played, he had a 4-footer that he figured he was going to miss.

He went from flawed to clawed, the ball went in and he has never looked back. His new-found success allowed him to trade in the van ("I got a BMW - it's a lot better to drive," he said.) and take off a few weeks every fall to watch his beloved Gators play.

Growing up in Orlando, DiMarco dreamed about two things: playing for Florida, which his two older brothers attended, and becoming one of the world's best players. DiMarco had his own game of four-ball, a fantasy that started to come to life yesterday.

"I would play my ball, and I would have one that was Nicklaus, one was Palmer and one was Player," he recalled. "I used to try to beat them. I always made them miss the 4-footers."

This weekend, DiMarco hopes to be in competition with players such as Mickelson, Singh and Woods.

Other first-timers in his position have done well. Then unknown, Australian named Greg Norman was fourth after tying for the lead going into the second round in 1981. A former mini-tour player, Tom Lehman, made his breakthrough after sharing the first-round lead in 1993, tying for third.

"This is a hard course," DiMarco said. "You are not going to have things go your way all the time, and I had everything go my way today. I just hope it stays like that - if it stays like that, you know it should be a good week."

The Masters

First-round leader ...

Chris DiMarco 32-33-65

... and selected followers

Angel Cabrera 32-34-66

Steve Stricker 33-33-66

John Huston 34-33-67

Phil Mickelson 35-32-67

Mark O'Meara 35-34-69

Vijay Singh 35-34-69

Paul Azinger 36-34-70

Sergio Garcia 36-34-70

J.M. Olazabal 35-35-70

Tiger Woods 34-36-70

David Duval 37-34-71

Ernie Els 38-33-71

M. Calcavecchia 36-36-72

Jack Nicklaus 38-35-73

Gary Player 36-37-73

Complete scores: [Page 8d]

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