2005: Quiet assassin

By Rex Hoggard

Heathrow, Fla.

When Jack Nicklaus sends America’s best into action next week at the Presidents Cup, the Golden Gipper

will have a trump card among his dirty dozen.

A red, white and blue ace-in-the-hole who could sway the outcome of the biennial matches with gumption, guile and an unassuming game.

Often hidden below the spotlight that consumes the event’s normal cast of characters, Chris DiMarco cherishes his role of quiet conqueror. Overlooked and underestimated, just the way DiMarco likes it.

“In match play, people maybe take me for granted a little bit,” DiMarco says. “I hang around, I hang around, and then all of sudden . . . I’m not afraid of the last few holes. That’s what we live for. It’s what drives us.”

In just two matches, last year’s Ryder Cup and the 2003 Presidents Cup, DiMarco has become a star-spangled spark plug. His loopy action and peculiar putting grip are a perfect complement to a fist-pumping persona that can whip even the most stoic galleries into a patriotic frenzy.

He went 2-3-0 in his first Presidents Cup two years ago in South Africa and, along with Jay Haas, DiMarco was a rare bright spot for a beleaguered U.S. Ryder Cup team last year at Oakland Hills, going 2-1-1 with a 1-up singles victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Combined with his record at the 2004 and ’05 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championships, DiMarco is 9-2 in individual match play the past two years, a run that began with his 2003 Presidents Cup victory over Stuart Appleby.

Quietly, he has become America’s Mr. Match Play.

What makes DiMarco so effective is about as mysterious as that claw putting grip of his.

“There’s nothing real flashy about (DiMarco’s game),” says Zach Johnson, a fellow Tour player and frequent sparring partner when the two are at home in Florida. “He definitely has his own swing and putting grip, but he knows how to win and trusts himself.”

More than one U.S. captain has opined in recent years that these international affairs normally come down to the player who makes the most putts. Simply put, DiMarco makes putts.

Since 1999, his first full year on Tour using the unorthodox putting grip that Skip Kendall taught him, he has ranked outside the top 40 in putting average only once.

He currently ranks fifth on Tour in putting (1.729 average), but a more telling statistic is his proficiency from 15 to 20 feet. DiMarco’s 29.9 percent putting average from that distance ranks first on Tour.

“It was big to try (the claw grip),” DiMarco says. “There were a lot of whispers, but I knew I couldn’t compete on the Tour without it. I basically couldn’t putt. My ball striking was always there, but I’d throw six, seven shots away on the putting green.”

His putting statistics, however, explain only part of his match play prowess.

As DiMarco concedes, he doesn’t blow anyone away with his length – his 282-yard driving average ranks 150th on Tour – or his game.

“If you look, you’ll see I’ve never won any of my matches more than like 2 and 1,” says DiMarco, whose only “blowout” in this year’s Match Play at La Costa was a 4-and-3 victory over John Daly in Round 2.

In match play, DiMarco is tenacious. Never too far down. Never too far out. It’s a quality that’s rooted in his middle-class, suburban upbringing.

The DiMarcos were a competitive bunch, and Chris, the youngest of three brothers, constantly

was trying to best his older siblings.

“I’m an emotional guy. I’m Italian,” DiMarco says. “I have two older brothers that used to beat me around. Whatever we were doing – Ping-Pong, pool, whatever it was – I was competitive.”

Football was DiMarco’s first love. As an undersized high school freshman, however, he traded on-field poundings for pounding balls on the practice tee. He brought his gridiron grit with him to the golf course.

His weekly games when he’s home at the Country Club of Heathrow near Orlando include regular matches against an equally feisty bunch – Champions Tour star Jim Thorpe and fellow Tour pros Danny Ellis and Johnson. Whether it’s for a $5 skin at Heathrow or a $1 million WGC payout, DiMarco has no “off” switch.

“He’s just relentless and gritty,” Johnson says. “If he needs to make a putt, he’ll make it. That’s just the way he is. He feeds off trying to beat someone.”

DiMarco’s fire is infectious. At the University of Florida, he relentlessly challenged all newcomers.

“He and I tried to pick on some of the other guys on the team . . . you know, win our beer money off of them,” says Dudley Hart, a teammate of DiMarco’s with the Gators.

“Kind of a divide-and-conquer type of thing.”

DiMarco’s will to win doesn’t stop when he’s off the course. On a warm August night a few weeks ago, he spent most of the evening trying to beat his 9-year-old son Cristian at an Internet helicopter game.

“Couldn’t do it,” a dejected DiMarco says with a deep sigh.

It’s that competitiveness that gives DiMarco his match play edge. Yet that same desire to defeat his opponent also is the source of a singular paradox in his career.

DiMarco’s runner-up finish at last month’s WGC-NEC Invitational marked the 98th event since his last victory (2002 Phoenix Open). No typo there. The eighth-ranked player in the world is currently 0-for-three years.

There have been plenty of close scrapes along the way. The most high profile, of course, was at this year’s Masters, where it took the “chip heard ’round the world” and a 73rd hole for Tiger Woods to grab the green jacket.

Following his near miss at Firestone, DiMarco’s long-held resolve that his time would come seemed to be shaken. For the fourth time this season, DiMarco had gone from roadster to roadkill in just a few holes.

“Bridesmaid is getting old, I can promise you that,” DiMarco lamented following his final-round 68 that left him one shot behind Woods.

A few weeks later, in the calm of his play room – a cozy enclave that includes a pool table, 2004 Golden Tee video game and an always-cold keg of Newcastle – DiMarco was a little more reflective about his runner-up rut.

“Tiger and I beat the field by seven at the Masters,” DiMarco says. “I just unfortunately was playing against Tiger. (At NEC), Tiger has to do something Tiger-like to beat me.”

There is some solace in second when your nemesis is the best player of his generation. In fact, it’s not this year’s Masters or NEC or last year’s PGA, where he lost to Vijay Singh in a playoff, that haunt DiMarco. It’s late slips such as earlier this year in New Orleans – where he held the lead at the turn Sunday before a back-nine 39 left him one shot back – that eat away at DiMarco’s psyche.

Despite his drought, DiMarco has finished inside the top 20 on the money list for five consecutive seasons. It’s a testament to how consistent he has been – and to just how fine the line is on the PGA Tour between success and winning.

“There’s winning and there’s losing. Thankfully for me, losing pays well,” DiMarco says. “I’ve done well moneywise. But the competitiveness and the urge to win is still great. I’m not content at all with just making money.”

Nor does he seem content with what already is a solid record in international matches. Almost more than winning individual titles, the 37-year-old father of three is inspired by team golf.

“I don’t know if it’s match play as much as maybe the team atmosphere of it,” DiMarco says. “I remember how much fun the camaraderie (was) in college. That’s what Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup bring out in me.”

Luckily for Nicklaus, those events also bring out the best in America’s best-kept match play secret.

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