POTOMAC - Chris DiMarco will never confuse the $3.5 million Kemper Insurance Open with the Masters or the Tournament Players Club at Avenel with Augusta National. Yet there was one undeniable similarity yesterday: DiMarco saw his name at the top of the leader board.
In this case, DiMarco, 32, was sharing the marquee spot after the opening round with 1998 champion Stuart Appleby of Australia and tour rookie J. J. Henry at 6-under-par 65. They were being chased by a trio of journeymen - Bob Estes, Lee Porter and Frank Nobilo - who were at 5-under.
Two other journeymen, Chris Riley and Willie Wood - the latter not to be confused with Tiger Woods - were two strokes behind at 4-under, as was former Masters and British Open champion Mark O'Meara. Former Kemper Open champions Scott Hoch and Justin Leonard, along with pre-tournament favorite Phil Mickelson, were among 14 players at 3-under 68.
Still, the feeling DiMarco had in this high-priced but low-profile PGA Tour event wasn't much different from what he experienced in April at the first major championship of 2001, which he led after two rounds before being a footnote to Woods' historic victory.
"It's nice to look up there and see nobody above your name," said DiMarco, who posted his score early and later was tied by Henry and Appleby.
DiMarco, who finished 10th at this year's Masters, hopes to take what he learned there among the azaleas and dogwoods and apply it over the next three days here. He wouldn't mind emerging with more than just a moral victory.
"That was fun," said DiMarco, whose only victory in six years on tour came at last year's Pennsylvania Classic. "It has a lot bigger press room than this. It was neat. I guess I never really saw the whole ramifications of how big it really was. I was kind of playing in the moment.
"Looking back, people I'm talking to and see, they watched it [and they] don't even watch golf. That part of it is pretty big. It's a golf tournament, just like any other golf tournament. We play these 35 times a year, so my goal is to win every one."
After five holes yesterday, DiMarco didn't like his chances this week.
"I was thinking a five-day weekend was looking good," he said jokingly.
DiMarco was 2-over par at the time, having three-putted for bogeys on the par-5 second and par-4 fifth. But as he did back in April, DiMarco got hot in a hurry. The man with the "Claw" grip proceeded to birdie three of the next four holes and seven of the next 10, including four straight starting at the par-5 13th.
"I knew I was playing good. I hadn't hit a bad shot, a couple of bad putts," DiMarco said of his slow start. "The course was there, if you can hit it in the fairway, and that's what I do. I hit 14 fairways out of 14 today. You put it in there 14 times, you're going to hit some good shots, and I did."
Softened by the heavy rains earlier in the week, the 7,005-yard course dried out yesterday and, as a result, the scores kept coming down. Appleby also started out with a bogey, on the par-4 10th hole, but made the turn at 5-under after making a tournament-record six straight birdies. His run included a chip-in from off the green on the par-4 16th.
Some figured it had to do with Appleby's previous success on the course. It is where he won the second of his three PGA Tour events, less than two months before his wife, Renay, was killed in an automobile crash in London after the British Open.
Appleby didn't place much significance in the fact that he played his best round of the year yesterday.
"I don't think it has that much to do with the place," said Appleby, 31, who has struggled to maintain the level of play the past two years when he finished 25th and 24th on the money list and made more than $3 million. "It was just a coincidence that it was here."
Nor did Henry think much about playing so well in his first trip to Avenel. Aware that the tournament has been won by other first-timers - nine, including the past two winners - Henry will try not to think about his bogey that finished the round or about being in the lead after missing the cut at eight of his past 12 tournaments.
"I'd love to see my name at the top come Sunday afternoon," said Henry, who never lost a match at his Connecticut high school before going on to Texas Christian. "Playing the PGA Tour is a dream come true. It's something you work for your entire life. If nothing else, regardless of what happens the next couple of days, deep down you know you can compete and play at this level."
DiMarco realized that last year, and had it reinforced this year.
After winning his first PGA event last year to finish 2000 ranked 19th on the money list with more than $1.8 million - both career bests - DiMarco has four top-10 results this year.
"I think ever since the last tournament in '99, I have elevated my game to a new level for sure," DiMarco said. "I finished second there. And then I had two more seconds last year before I finally won. It's just experience. It's just getting there and knowing how to react under that kind of stuff."
The experience at the Masters was the stuff of dreams, though DiMarco didn't quite finish it the way he wanted. He led for two rounds and part of the third before being chased down by Woods, who became the first player to win four straight majors.
But DiMarco has a better idea of what it will take to win the $630,000 first-place check.
"Unfortunately, Tiger's a pretty hard guy to catch," DiMarco said. "He's totally in his element in that situation, and it was a new situation for me. Hopefully it will be a springboard for the future. ... [But] in the biggest spectacle there is, with the world watching, I proved I can play in that type of pressure."
The world won't be watching this weekend.
This is the Kemper, not the Masters.
This is Avenel, not Augusta.
First-round leaders ...
Chris DiMarco 35-30-65
J. J. Henry 33-32-65
Stuart Appleby 35-30-65
... and selected followers
Mark O'Meara 35-32-67
Phil Mickelson 35-33-68
Ben Crenshaw 33-37-70
Fred Funk 38-33-71
Complete scores: [Page 8d]