DiMarco leads it

Posted: April 06, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. — At the Masters, experience always has been as mandatory as dogwoods and pimento cheese sandwiches.

Until you've negotiated Amen Corner, left an approach shot on the three-putt side of a hole or misread the wind when attempting to carry Rae's Creek, you can't tame Augusta National Golf Club. It says so right there in the rulebook.

Only Fuzzy Zoeller was fitted for a green jacket in his first appearance in the season's first major. That was 22 years ago. But that hasn't stopped other Masters rookies from trying.

In 1999, Brandel Chamblee shared the opening-day lead with three others. He finished in a tie for 18th, nine behind Jose Maria Olazabal. Last April, Dennis Paulson was alone atop the leader board after 18 holes. He ended up tied for 14th, 11 behind Vijay Singh.

No first-round leader, first-timer or otherwise, has gone wire-to-wire since Ben Crenshaw in 1984. You think Chris DiMarco can make a dent in that footnote?

Surely you remember DiMarco? He claimed his first PGA Tour victory at last September's inaugural Pennsylvania Classic. Turned professional in 1990. Lost his Tour card five years later. Big Florida Gators fan. Ranks 34th on this year's money list. Finished tied for sixth last week in Atlanta. Uses an unorthodox putting stroke that pretty much salvaged his career. Calls it the Psycho Grip.

Yesterday, in conditions that were ideal for low scores, DiMarco posted a relatively trouble-free 7-under-par 65 in his competitive debut on these hallowed grounds. That left him one shot in front of Steve Stricker and Angel Cabrera, two ahead of Phil Mickelson, Lee Janzen and John Huston and three better than amateur James Driscoll, Kirk Triplett, Chris Perry and Miguel Angel Jiminez.

Janzen is a two-time U.S. Open winner who has never cracked the top 10 here. Mickelson, the No. 2-ranked player on the planet, opened with a 66 in 1995 and a 65 the following year. This is his lowest round since then.

Tiger Woods, who is trying to become the only man since Bobby Jones in 1930 to win four consecutive majors, shot a 2-under-par 70, the same number he opened with in 1997, when he won here in record-setting proportions.

Singh, the defending champion, carded a 69, three fewer that his first round last year.

DiMarco, who had eight birdies and a lone bogey (on No. 3), did not seem overwhelmed by the surroundings.

Only two times - Lloyd Mangrum in 1940 and Mike Donald 11 years ago - has anyone shot better in his Masters debut.

"I played real good [Wednesday, in a practice round]," he said. "I think I shot 4- or 5-under. The course kind of sets up good for me. I switched drivers [this week], and it made a big difference. I kept telling my caddie, 'You can be aggressive without being crazy.' I took my chances when I had them.

"I was a lot less nervous than I thought I'd be. I felt pretty comfortable. Once I hit [the drive] down the middle and hit a 9-iron to about 5-feet [on No. 1], it kind of settled me down. I would have liked to have made the putt, but an easy par was a nice way to get going.

"I try not to think about my round before I play. This feels pretty good. I hope I feel this way Sunday afternoon. This is a hard course. You're not going to have things go your way all the time. And I had everything go my way today. I heard how you can't hit it here or you can't hit it there. If you play well, I don't care where you're playing, you're going to play well. I would love to have three or four years [of experience] behind me Sunday afternoon. Or even tomorrow afternoon. But I can't harp on the fact that I don't."

Stricker, who was runner-up to Singh at the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee, won $1 million by winning the season-opening World Match Play Championship in Australia and hasn't done much since. This is his fifth Masters. His best finish was last year's tie for 19th. He has missed the cut twice.

"I never really know what to expect coming in here," Stricker said. "I played smart. I've been thinking too much about my swing. You just need to go around here a bunch. The more you go around, the more you can feel comfortable.

"It's not a comfortable place. You've got to deal with situations and just hang in there. You have to really pay attention all the time. There are certain holes where I just don't feel right off the tee. Maybe [DiMarco] doesn't feel that way."

Cabrera missed the cut last year in his debut. But he just won in his home country at the PGA European Tour's Argentina Open last week.

"I am playing good golf," he said, through an interpreter. "I have a good perspective for this tournament. I hit lots of good shots. I am a good contender. I hope it's not my best round. I think I might have one even better."

Someone else, of course, who might have a better one in him is Woods. He bogeyed the first and 10th holes and made birdies at 3, 7, 9 and 15. He played the par-5s in 1-under, which for him is like giving away strokes. Good thing he's the best closer since Secretariat.

"This is a major championship," Woods cautioned. "There's four days. Everyone knows it's awfully hard to go out and shoot in the mid-60s every day in a major.

"I had my chances. That's just the way it goes sometimes. Once the greens become baked out, borderline shots won't work out anymore. Not to these greens, and these pin locations. Any time you shoot [under par] the first day in a major, you're going to be in an all-right position."

Obviously, Tiger doesn't intend on doing borderline.

Which still leaves everyone else on full alert. Doesn't mean they can't dream.

"I remember when I was 8, 9, 10 years old with my buddies, we could go play and I would play four balls," DiMarco said. "One would be my ball and I would have one that was [Jack] Nicklaus, one that was [Arnold] Palmer and one that was [Gary] Player. And I used to try and beat them. I always made them miss 4-footers. It was fun."

Woods used to play those games, too. So how many 4-footers do you figure he's going to power-lip this weekend? *

Send e-mail to kernm@phillynews.com

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