2005: Perspective - DiMarco's best shot not quite enough

So what do you do when the rock from your slingshot hits Goliath squarely between the eyes and he staggers but somehow doesn’t fall? When you play one of the best rounds of your life, at one of your absolute favorite places in the world, taking on perhaps the most dominant player of all time in front of a television audience from here to Katmandu – and it still isn’t quite enough?

How do you deal with the harsh realization that years from now, the gritty fight you fought for 72 holes plus overtime, and all that sweat, will be some lost footnote, forgotten among all those storied tales regaled through the bubbling laughter at the annual Champions Dinner?

Does anyone have a manual for that?

Not to sound sappy, but sometimes at Augusta National, it doesn’t really seem fair that they hand out only one green blazer. They own a whole closetful up there, don’t they? At the 69th Masters, there was lots of mud, a little Vijay-Phil mudslinging, and then there was Tiger Woods and Chris DiMarco. Nobody else finished in the same ZIP code. Golf’s friendliest little major turned into an intense, exciting, don’t-dare-to-even-run-to-the-fridge-to-get-a-cold-beer showdown.

Woods started the final round with a three-shot lead, which is a little like spotting Reggie Miller four letters in a game of H-O-R-S-E. But a funny thing happened on Tiger’s 18-hole ceremonial victory lap: DiMarco, who has $15 million in the bank but only three PGA Tour titles, got tough. Real tough.

As a result, a week that had more starts and stops than a Manhattan rush hour turned into quite a little shindig. Must be something in the water here, because more often than not, the final curtain only leaves fans craving more.

Four days at the National produced some pretty elementary math: Let’s see, Woods and DiMarco evenly split 552 shots in regulation, finishing at 12-under 276. One man’s magical chip somehow found the bottom of the hole Sunday at No. 16. And one man’s quest to do the same two holes later – possibly to win – took a quick peek and proved afraid of the dark.

The chip-in by Woods was preposterous, one of those 1-in-1,000 deals that makes you wonder if destiny’s hand isn’t squeezing his broad shoulders. Following a wayward 8-iron at No. 16 that put him in danger of losing two shots to DiMarco, Woods, protecting a one-shot lead, deftly lobbed a pitch into the steep bank above the hole. The ball finally slowed, reversed direction, and trickled toward the hole ever so gently, the excitement building to a crescendo. The ball tantalizingly hit the breaks on the lip of the cup. Woods’ knees buckled in disbelief. And then the ball teetered and tumbled over the edge. Expect the unexpected, sure. This seemed a little much.

“Nothing surprises me with him,” said Woods’ coach, Hank Haney. “You’ve got to hit the shot, you’ve got to have the imagination . . . you know what? There’s some luck there, too. Let’s face it.”

The patrons, packed 10-12 deep around the green, went bonkers, beer cups and high fives flying everywhere. But the volume lowered quickly amid a pro-DiMarco crowd.

“Aren’t there any Tiger fans out here?” asked one middle-aged woman. She wasn’t joking.

Drawled one old-timer, “We’re all Tigered out.”

No offense, but they’d seen it all before. Three hundred yards away, over the crest of the hill at the par-4 17th, Tida Woods, Tiger’s mom, was anxious to know more about the roars. “What happened?” she asked innocently. “Don’t worry,” she was told, “you’ll be seeing that shot all week long.”

All week? Try all century.

That quickly, the Masters turned. One man further etches his name in history, collecting his ninth major championship; the other, the man who has knocked hard on the door at three of the last five majors, is determined to keep knocking harder, even if his knuckles are bloodied.

A year ago, DiMarco played in the final group Sunday at the Masters and reeled. He shot 76, taking a front-row seat as Phil Mickelson shot 31 coming home to secure his first green jacket. Though he came up a shot shy this time, it was, well, different. Woods tried to pull away, but DiMarco simply didn’t allow him. There’s comfort in that. DiMarco stuffed a 4-iron to 3 feet at No. 9, made a gutsy par save at 10, buried a long putt for birdie at 11. As each ball tumbled into the hole, his right fist clenched, then rattled up and down as if he were holding dice in it. His 4-under 68 was one shot off the day’s low round. It could have been better.

DiMarco has been doing his fair share of fist-pumping lately, and deservedly so. He was an unsung standout on the 2003 Presidents Cup team in South Africa, and was one of the few Americans to show a pulse at last autumn’s Ryder Cup. He got a taste of a big Sunday at a major at Augusta 2004, and he had a putt on the 72nd hole to win the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

So, will people start seeing DiMarco in a different light? He hopes so, especially after his display of heavy mettle at the National. He’ll be 37 this summer, and knows it’s time to start adding victories. Augusta will fuel him.

“For lack of better words, I showed some balls out there today,” DiMarco said emphatically as he emptied his locker in a corner of the stately clubhouse. “I challenged the best golfer in the world, on our best course, in the biggest arena we play in all year.

“This tournament alone has made me a better player. This tournament is watched by more people than any other tournament we play anywhere. You know that (as a competitor), and the last thing you want to do is choke in front of all those watching you. I’m disappointed I didn’t win. It would be really nice to be out there with the green jacket on. But I gave it my all and just came up one shot short.”

Sometimes, that’s enough. It has to be.

And anyone who thinks Chris DiMarco came away empty wasn’t really watching.

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