In the public eye, Chris DiMarco was like a man waiting to face his executioner. Instead, the executioner almost got executed, but Tiger Woods prevailed against uncommon odds, and he now holds four Masters green jackets, tying Arnold Palmer. Two more and he'll tie Jack Nicklaus, which reminds me.
It was the Masters of 1997. Woods was still a kid in his early 20s, and he had swept the board. Tom Kite finished second, 12 strokes back and out of sight, upon which he said, "He won his tournament. I won mine."
Colin Montgomerie had come in from his pairing with Woods looking shell-shocked. Words failed him.
Not Jack Nicklaus. In one of his traditional press conferences in 1996, the Golden Bear, shaking his head and trying to imagine what wondrous things might be ahead, made this prediction: "This young man will win more Masters than Arnie and me put together."
He is well on his way, but on this sparkling Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club, quite a contrast from the bedeviling weather that turned spectator lanes, churned by heavy foot traffic, into slop, Woods ran into an obstacle of unexpected resistance. DiMarco, an ll-year veteran of the professional tour, had lost the interrupted third-round lead Sunday morning, and Woods had spurted by him with a streak of seven birdies.
A year ago, DiMarco had teed off Sunday in a tie with Phil Mickleson, but as Lefty moved ahead, DiMarco faded to a 76 and out. Here he was again, this time three strokes off Woods' lead, and three clubs off Tiger's distance. That edge came into play straight off the first tee in the afternoon. Woods' tee shot left DiMarco 50 yards to the rear.
But, as someone had said, "Tiger finished the third round in a slump. He bogeyed two of the last five holes."
As they turned into the back nine Sunday, the three-stroke lead still held firm, but here the battle was joined. Woods bogeyed the 10th, DiMarco birdied the 11th from about 40 feet. Then gave the stroke back on the 12th, then birdied the 14th, and now he was back within a stroke again. From this point on, the match had Amen Corner reeling and rocking. Tiger lost some of his steam and concentration, but still managed an improbable chip from behind the 16th green.
This was probably the shot of the day, surely the most tantalizing. The ball took spin, came to a halt, then trickled down to the lip of the cup, dangled there teasingly, then dropped in. But Woods would bogey 17 and 18, at the end of which the 2005 Masters was reduced to a two-man field and a playoff was on with twilight lowering.
It would end when Woods dropped a putt of about 16 feet on revisiting the 18th green, and taking his leave, Woods wiped at his tear-filled eyes. He had been in a fight. "Chris gave it everything he had," he said.
"Great match," he had said to DiMarco as they ended their grueling 19-hole dogfight.
In defeat DiMarco has this to say: "I'd be hurt if I had given it away, but I gave it all I had and it wasn't enough. I know something about pressure from Ryder Cup and President Cup matches. I know what it's like for Mr. Nicklaus to come up to you and say, 'We need your point.' "
DiMarco is New York bred, University of Florida educated and current resident of the Orlando area. He has won three times on the Tour, but no victory came as close to establishing his identity as this Masters. "A green jacket would have gone a long way to easing my pain," he said.
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