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Major opportunity for taking

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If this were better theater, we'd suspect Shakespeare had come flowering back to life.

All the world loves an underdog, so there's PGA Tour backseat boy Chris DiMarco leading the Masters a second day, trying for an upset that would rank only slightly below that Olympics wonder of 1980, the Miracle on Ice.

For dramatic effect, the hot breath of Tiger Woods, golf's king, now scorches that uncelebrated Florida Gator neck. Today, they go head to head, eyeball to eyeball. Chris has never been paired with Tiger, in any tournament, much less at Augusta National.

Exam time big time.

"Tiger is the best golfer by far; hottest athlete in the world," said the surprise 32-year-old front-runner from Orlando. "But if I can continue to be as solid as the opening 36 holes, I'll give myself a real chance.

"Nobody's perfect, but at times Tiger can seem to come pretty close. It's my challenge to keep doing the same stuff, staying as calm as possible, making smart decisions, rolling in some putts, not paying too much attention to Tiger."

Easier said than ...

Thirty-six holes from now, Tiger might well reign as champion of the Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship and British Open. Nobody has pulled off that quadfecta since ancient Scots invented the sport.

Grand Slammer, I say.

To further crowd a dazzling Georgian stage, for a weekend that should flutter sporting hearts and fuel TV ratings, are two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen along with Phil Mickelson and David Duval, a pair of mega-wealthy golfing princes who suffer from major shortcomings.

More spice still ...

For continental flavor, as the Augusta National plot thickens, the hopes of four continents -- Angel Cabrera (Argentina), Toshi Izawa (Japan), Ernie Els (South Africa), Jose Maria Olazabal (Spain) -- will stylishly pursue American headliners.

So many story lines.

Oh, for the tragedy angle, there came Greg Norman, looking more like guppy than Shark, muddling to 82, blowing the 36-hole cut along with fellow Friday faltering heroes Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie and Davis Love.

Who needs 'em?

It's easy to pull for long-shot DiMarco, but I absolutely expect Tiger to win, and why not? But we know Els and Olazabal can handle Grand Slam heat, having won two majors apiece, and it keeps figuring that Duval and Mickelson have to break through sometime.

Act Three cometh.

Scoring wasn't especially difficult, although you might have a challenge in convincing Norman. Wind was quiet, greens soft and receptive and numbers going low with 16 rounds in the 60s, led by the 6-under-par artistry of Woods, Duval, Izawa and Mark Calcavecchia.

Give us some whippings by weekend winds. Allow the tricky, undulating Masters greens to harden and further quicken. Tougher conditions will better identify a champion.

"When it's more benign, a lot of fellows who are not at the top of their games can manage to get by," Woods said. "If things get a little nastier, it'll take more solid stuff to excel."

Wonder who he means?

None of the principals is more intriguing than Duval, the Jacksonville bloke who trains almost as hard as Navy Seals, has powerful skills sweet-suited for the legendary Masters arena, but David -- in pursuit of Goliath Woods -- always seems to be fighting fate, and maybe himself.

"I'm having a great time," Duval said after his 66, just two weeks after withdrawing from the Players Championship with a lame wrist. "I have every intention of winning.

"I had practiced so hard in hurting my wrist, everything fell into a groove when I got back to it. Everything seems to be properly aligning. It's hard to win at Augusta without (good) breaks, but I'm trying to play so well that I don't need breaks."

So far, 2001 has been a rather limp run for Duval. After a solid seventh-place finish in the small, select field of the Mercedes Championship, he has missed two cuts and also finished 51st and 63rd.

David was second to Mark O'Meara in 1998, came home sixth behind winner Olazabal in 1999 and wound up third last year when Vijay Singh ruled. Even so, it's Woods the Georgia Tech alum must overcome, with apologies to DiMarco, Mickelson and the others.

"These are major opportunities that we all fight to have," said Mickelson, a soldier in the same get-Tiger war as Duval. "Unquestionably, it's time I won a Grand Slam tournament. It should've happened before now. These things aren't meant to be easy."

On this stage, only tough guys survive.

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