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Augusta rookie adds orange and blue to green

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He's a University of Florida football zealot. For years, after Gainesville schooling, Chris DiMarco traveled the PGA Tour in an orange-and-blue Ford van.

"It was a great ride, but then we lost a few big games," he said, blending Gators talk with golf. "I traded my wheels for a BMW. On the highway, people had begun making nasty comments and giving vulgar salutes."

Next to the FSU Seminoles, he likes the Tennessee Vols least.

Steve Spurrier's kind of guy.

Thursday, shouts of "Go Gators!" cascaded through Georgia pines. "I never felt alone out there," said DiMarco, who blitzed Augusta National for eight birdies, shooting 65 to become an opening-round hero in his first-ever Masters round.

His nickname is "Psycho," but the Orlandoan took on a serene, secure, if stampeding look as glory mounted at one of golf's most sacred temples. Chris reached the 16th tee with an unsuppressible little smile.

DiMarco -7 atop leaderboards.

"That was the only time I got ahead of myself," he said, "thinking how cool it would be on Sunday, to still be leading the Masters, hearing the same kind of ovation."

Edging into fantasy.

He's rather rich, having grossed $3.7-million since 1990, but DiMarco remains well shy of famous. Finally, seven months ago, the Gator earned his first PGA Tour trophy at the Pennsylvania Classic.

Spurrier was watching.

"I received a nice letter from our football coach," DiMarco said. "That was in September, as my Gators were preparing to play the Vols. Coach Spurrier said Florida coaches stopped watching Tennessee films to see my win on TV."

Chris has two kids. Cristian is 5, Amanda 3, and they're in Augusta with DiMarco's wife, Amy, his parents and in-laws, all renting a house not far from the Masters course.

"There are only two colleges where my children can't go, unless they pay their own way," DiMarco said. "FSU and Tennessee."

Oh, about the Psycho thing, it's due not to DiMarco being weird or tempestuous, but because of his putting grip. "I was desperate in the mid-1990s, fighting to stay on the PGA Tour," he said. "I thought about quitting. Putting was killing me.

"My buddy, Mark Calcavecchia (another Gator), said he used four or five grips on his putter during a single round. Such experimenting goes on all the time.

"Skip Kendall introduced me to the so-called Psycho Grip; a normal left hand combined with a right that's kind of a claw that's laid onto the shaft."

It's working.

Not since Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock has anybody so benefited from a Psycho. After some lean years, DiMarco has made $3.1-million since January 1998. On slick, severely undulating Augusta National greens, he needed just 25 putts in carving Thursday's artistry.

Masters rookies historically struggle. Experience is considered mandatory on the legendary course. Fuzzy Zoeller (1979) is the only first-timer since 1935 to leave Augusta with a green jacket.

So far, Chris is immune.

DiMarco's biggest mistake came in the locker room. Having just arrived, preparing to remove street shoes, Chris parked his golf spikes on a bench. "Sir," reminded a hovering attendant, "we don't put spikes on chairs at Augusta National."

After that, all was smooth.

Last week, as the PGA Tour caravan made its Atlanta stop, DiMarco was the tournament leader after the second and third rounds. He crumbled to 77, tying for sixth place, five behind champion Scott McCarron. "You never quit learning in golf," DiMarco said. "I learned the feeling of winning at the Pennsylvania Classic. I grew up a little more. Now it's a matter of learning how to do it repeatedly.

"On my way to the Masters, I picked the brains of Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernhard Langer while playing alongside them in other tournaments. I was a lot less nervous than expected during my first Augusta round. I can't wait for Friday and my next lesson."

Born in New York, his dad worked 25 years for Sysco Foods, moving the family to Orlando when Chris was a first-grader. "By age 10, I was a nut-case Gators fan," the Masters leader said. "What a thrill in 1996 when we won a national championship."

Now, as the football Gators observe him, it is Christian Dean DiMarco trying to beat a load of odds, upsetting Tiger Woods and Mickelson and the celebrated others, to win one of golf's ultimate prizes.

After one quarter, he's golden.

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