Back on top in a major way


AUGUSTA, Ga. - Usually, at the end of the Masters, there is a runner-up burdened with disappointment and regret. You can see it on his face and hear it in his voice.

He can't stop thinking about the key shot he hit poorly or the errant judgment that cost him the lead. He knows he is going to have to live with having failed to come through, and it isn't going to be fun.

Then there is Chris DiMarco, who exhibited no such sadness after bowing to Tiger Woods in a classic final-round duel at Augusta National yesterday.

"Chris, did you have fun out there?" a reporter asked.

"Yes, absolutely," DiMarco replied. "Anytime you can make Tiger hiccup a little bit, you know you're doing something right."

This Masters runner-up was self-satisfied, proud, almost giddy. And his upbeat response had an old-fashioned explanation that sufficed.

He had done his best.

"It would hurt if I had given it away, but I didn't. I really didn't," DiMarco said. "I played him as hard as I could down the stretch. I feel very good. I think it was a good show for everybody."

Indeed. Playing together in the last twosome, DiMarco and Woods traded shots throughout the final round and turned the tournament into a one-on-one, finishing at least seven strokes ahead of everyone else.

Woods started the round with a three-stroke lead, out-drove DiMarco by 80 yards on No. 1 and rolled in birdie putts on the first two holes. Holding a four-stroke lead, his fourth green jacket seemed assured.

"But Chris hit a lot of wonderful golf shots," Woods said. "He's going to be in your face all day, and I knew that from all the times I watched him compete down the stretch in tournaments."

After a three-putt on No. 5 stalled Woods' momentum, DiMarco slowly crept closer. Woods' reaction was almost as stunning as his eventual victory. Usually invincible in front, he stopped making putts and stopped hitting fairways.

DiMarco cut the lead to three strokes, two, one. In the end, Woods needed a miracle shot - a long pitch-and-roll on No. 16 that hung on the lip of the cup before dropping - to force a playoff, which he won with a birdie putt on the first hole.

When that final putt dropped, DiMarco matter-of-factly rose from a crouch, shook hands with Woods and strode over to his wife and three children perched near the green. There were no tears, no operatic scenes of disappointment. He had done his best.

"I told my caddie walking on 18, 'If you're not having fun doing this, boy, something is wrong with you,' " DiMarco said. "That was about as much fun as I've had in a day. My stomach was turning. But it's nice to know your stomach is going crazy and you're going crazy and you're still performing."

That's why DiMarco's performance was so memorable. It might be awhile before any golfer faces more mental obstacles in a day.

Earlier in the day, when the field was finishing the rain-delayed third round, he blew a four-stroke lead in 22 minutes. Almost impossibly, Woods made up that deficit with his first five swings of the morning.

That was depressing enough, and then DiMarco went on to finish the third round with a back-nine 41 that seemed to eliminate him.

What did he do during the lunchtime break before his fourth round began?

"I went home and changed shirts because that one was no good," he said with a smile.

Then came the tee shots on No. 1, when Woods hit a ball so far that the twosome in front of them couldn't putt out because the crowd was going so crazy. Talk about intimidating.

"How do you combat that?" someone asked.

"Hit your approach shot inside his [on the green]," DiMarco said.

He did all afternoon, putting his approach shots around the pins and sinking putt after putt to draw closer.

Did he have regrets? Sure. He missed a handful of relatively short putts that could have made the difference. He also failed to put his approach shot on the green on the playoff hole, giving Woods the opening to win.

And he surely will remember his own near-miracle shot on No. 18, a chip that easily could have rolled in and won the tournament, except it didn't.

"He's a wonderful competitor. He's a fighter. What else can you say?" Woods said.

In the end, it was just wrong for DiMarco to have to hang his head and cry, as so many Masters runners-up have done. His final score of 12-under 276 was one of the lowest in tournament history, better than the winner's score in 60 of the previous 68 Masters.

He was game. He was brilliant. He was, for a day, every bit the equal of the world's best golfer.

All he didn't do was win.

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