DiMarco has new grip on life

The former Gator says a unique putting technique saved him.

Published April 14, 2005

Chris DiMarco became the first player in more than 25 years to lose back-to-back major championships in playoffs and just the third in the modern history of the grand slam events.

He has been a leader at some point in four of the past five Masters, but unable to win.

But if you think DiMarco has it bad, consider where he was in the late 1990s, unable to feel secure standing over the shortest of putts.

"It was such a struggle from 5 feet in," said DiMarco, the runner-up to Tiger Woods on Sunday after losing in a sudden-death playoff.

Things got so bad that DiMarco, 36, who grew up in Orlando and starred as a collegiate golfer at the University of Florida, considered quitting.

Twice all-SEC and once an all-American at Florida, DiMarco made a slow ascension to the PGA Tour, first playing on the Nationwide Tour, then winning the money title on the Canadian Tour, then returning to the Nationwide Tour.

He made it to the PGA Tour in 1994, but was back on the Nationwide Tour in 1997, where he won the Ozarks Open and had enough high finishes to get back on the PGA Tour for good.

But DiMarco was far from set. Poor putting can drive a pro golfer to the brink.

It wasn't until fellow tour player Skip Kendall showed DiMarco a unique putting style he had picked up years before in Wisconsin. Kendall never used the stroke in competition, but always fiddled around with it as a training aid.

He showed it to DiMarco, who was desperate enough to try anything.

With the "claw," DiMarco uses a normal left-hand grip on the club, with his right hand grabbing the club as if it were a long putter. His right hand is upside down and more or less guides the putter.

"It was awkward at first, for sure," he said. "But once I saw putts going in, I got used to it pretty quick."

Other players have used variations of the "claw," including Mark Calcevecchia, Bernhard Langer and Mark O'Meara. Many switch back and forth.

DiMarco never varies.

It is one of the reasons for his success at the Masters. He tied for 10th in 2001, tied for 12th in 2002 and tied for sixth last year, sharing the lead with Phil Mickelson heading into the final round before a 76.

This year, he came from four back to tie Woods and his total of 276 would have won 61 of the 69 Masters. He rallied despite hitting the fifth-shortest drives in the field compared to the guy hitting the fourth-longest. And those are just statistics. Woods seemed to be a mile ahead of DiMarco on every hole.

That is why DiMarco won so many fans. He stood up to Woods when many believed he'd get buried, especially after blowing a four-stroke lead Sunday morning during the conclusion of the third round.

Back in August, DiMarco had a chance to win the PGA Championship, although most remember Justin Leonard as the player who squandered the best opportunity. Had DiMarco been able to convert a 15-footer on the final green of regulation at Whistling Straits, he would have won. He left it short, then fell to Vijay Singh in a three-hole aggregate playoff.

But DiMarco's final-round 71 was the only score among players in the final 11 groups under par.

On Sunday, DiMarco took a "nothing to lose" attitude into the final round, and it nearly paid off. Had he gotten a few putts to fall on the front nine - he missed four birdie chances from inside 12 feet - who knows the outcome?

He still trailed by three strokes on the 10th tee but managed to keep it close, despite a bogey at the 12th hole and Woods' incredible birdie chip shot at the 16th.

In fact, at both the 17th and 18th holes, where Woods bogeyed, DiMarco took a run at birdies, both times leaving himself with testy, 6-foot par putts. He canned them both.

In 1978 and 1979, Tom Watson lost playoffs at consecutive majors, the PGA Championship and the Masters. But he had won three majors prior and went on to win five more. The only other player to lose consecutive majors in playoffs was Craig Wood, who lost in extra holes at the 1934 PGA Championship, then suffered a crueler fate than DiMarco at the Masters. Gene Sarazen tied him with his famous double eagle at the 15th hole, then won the next day in a 36-hole playoff. Back then, however, the Masters was just in its second year.

Wood would go on to win the Masters and U.S. Open in 1941.

Can DiMarco go on to have major success? He's no lock to win a major, as several runners-up would attest. But perhaps Sunday's showing will give him the confidence to prevail.

As Woods said, "He's in your face the whole way."

"This year, I was ready to win," said DiMarco, who has three PGA Tour victories, the last in 2002. "I really felt like I could win it. And coming out the way I did, I will be ready to win next year."