St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

DiMarco's Masterful first step

Without the benefits of experience, the former Gator focuses on "just playing golf.''

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


Without the benefits of experience, the former Gator focuses on "just playing golf."

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- When he arrived Monday for his first Masters experience, Chris DiMarco got a quick lesson in the way of the world, Augusta National-style.

Having placed his golf spikes on a bench where they were not supposed to be, DiMarco was politely but sternly told by an attendant that things are not done that way here.

"That's when I realized I was someplace different," DiMarco said.

That lesson is typically learned on the course, not known for its kindness to first-time Masters participants.

But there was DiMarco, a University of Florida graduate who has one PGA Tour victory, dominating the storied course Thursday during the first round of the 65th Masters.

Using an unorthodox claw-like putting grip, DiMarco, 32, made eight birdies and one bogey to shoot 7-under-par 65 and led Steve Stricker and Angel Cabrera by a shot. Safety Harbor's John Huston was two back after 67 tied him with Lee Janzen and Phil Mickelson for fourth. Defending champion Vijay Singh shot 69.

"I had heard how hard the course is. If you're playing well, I don't care where you're playing, you are going to play well," said DiMarco, who won last year's Pennsylvania Classic and qualified for the Masters by finishing 19th on the PGA Tour money list. "Experience is obviously very big. I would love to have three or four years behind me Sunday afternoon, or even tomorrow afternoon.

"But I don't, so I can't harp on the fact that I don't have the experience. I've got to go out and just play golf."

That's easier said than done. Only three players in Masters history -- Horton Smith in the first Masters in 1934, Gene Sarazen in 1935 and Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 -- have won the tournament in their first attempt.

Legends such as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo needed a minimum of four Masters before they tasted victory. Tiger Woods, who shot 70 in the opening round, won in his third try, his first as a pro, in 1997.

So much for experience. Argentina's Cabrera is playing in his second Masters. Kirk Triplett, tied for seventh, is playing his third. James Driscoll, runner-up at last year's U.S. Amateur, shot 68. It is just the fourth trip to Augusta for Miguel Angel Jimenez, who also shot 68.

"When you first play here, you don't know the pressures," said Greg Norman, playing in his 21st Masters.

"Maybe we just don't know any better," said Tom Scherrer, a first-timer who shot 71.

And yet ...

In each of the past two years, first-time participants led or shared the lead after Day 1. Brandel Chamblee went on to tie for 18th in 1999, and Dennis Paulson tied for 14th last year.

"It's a learning place," said Stricker, a three-time tour winner making his fifth appearance. "You need to go around here a bunch. The more you go around here, the more you feel comfortable. You feel good playing here knowing what to expect with the pin positions, you know the severity of the greens.

"The more times you play here, the more you get comfortable with the fact that it's not a comfortable place."

It's never been a problem for Huston. Making his 12th straight Masters appearance, Huston has never missed the cut and finished third in his first try in 1990. His 5-under 67 Thursday came despite a bad back that required him to visit an orthopedic specialist Wednesday. "I think the more you come here, the more you know what to expect on certain putts," Huston said. "I've probably been in every bad place you can be on these greens. You still have to play well, and I putted well today."

Huston shot one of 32 sub-par scores on a cool, overcast day that saw plenty of up-and-down scoring. There were seven eagles, four at the par-5 13th and three at the par-5 15th.

But there were numerous big numbers as well. Steve Jones made 9 at the second hole, as did Arnold Palmer at the 13th. Nick Faldo and Tom Watson each made 7 at the par-3 12th.

History suggests it won't be easy for DiMarco to stay away from those big numbers. "Obviously you cannot win the tournament (Thursday)," he said. "You just put yourself in a position to not lose the tournament, and I did that. I put a good number up. This is a hard course. You are not going to have things go your way all the time and I had everything go my way. I just hope it stays like that."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.