Major Player

June 20, 2005
June 20, 2005

Table of Contents
June 20, 2005

  • Chris DiMarco has a Wisconsin judge to thank for devising the unorthodox grip that helped him overcome the yips and jump-start his career

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Major Player

He may not look the part, but after near misses at the PGA Championship and the Masters, Chris DiMarco is one of the favorites at this week's U.S. Open

Ten things we like about Chris DiMarco:

This is an article from the June 20, 2005 issue Original Layout

1. He doesn't practice much (but plays golf all the time).

2. He's always ready to play his shot.

3. His waggle, swing and claw-style putting grip are all pretty darn funky.

4. He's married to the girl he took to his senior prom.

5. His two closest friends own a car wash.

6. His caddie's nickname is OB (as in out-of-bounds).

7. During rounds, he shares Snickers bars with OB (Pat O'Bryan).

8. Playing a heightened version of his usual game--nothing he does looks

spectacular--he finished second to Vijay Singh, at the time the No. 1 player

in the world, at last year's PGA Championship.

9. He was the only U.S. player to consistently kick European butt at

the 2004 Ryder Cup.

10. The only player to beat him at the Masters two months ago was Tiger

Woods, and Woods, driving the ball 75 yards past him on some holes,

needed a miracle chip-in and a playoff to do it.

With the U.S. Open being played this week at Pinehurst, you just know weird things are happening in office pools--that people are taking DiMarco before Retief Goosen, who won the Open last year and in 2001; before Ernie and Phil; before even Tiger and Veej. DiMarco is exactly the kind of guy sports fans have always responded to. He plays on grit, heart and desire. He's Doug Flutie in golf spikes (pointy metal ones, not those round plastic jobs). In the last four years he has helped raise more than $1 million to send kids with cancer to camp. He sometimes kisses his wife, Amy, midround, as she follows him outside the ropes. When his mind wanders during a slow day in his outdoor office, or when the pressure's too much, he sometimes says to himself, "Dig deep. Can't disappoint the kids," and pictures his three children, Cristain, 9, Amanda, 7, and Abigale, 1.

Pinehurst No. 2 should set up beautifully for DiMarco, because controlling his distances with his irons is one of his strengths, and critical at Pinehurst. Approach shots that land on the green, but long or short of the hole, may not stay on the green. Also, he has developed into an excellent short putter (box, page 67). You get few true tap-ins on No. 2; the ball will often trickle four or five feet past the hole.

The sports section used to be filled with Chris DiMarcos: ballplayers, golfers and guards off the bench especially--men with working-class roots, not that different from all the Joe Fans watching them. But today on the PGA Tour the 36-year-old DiMarco, anything but an overnight sensation and with only three Tour wins, is an anomaly. He takes all his cues from old guys: Fred Funk, 49, who won the Players Championship in March; Ryder Cup partner Jay Haas, 51 and still going strong; his coach at Florida, Buddy Alexander, 52, who won the 1986 U.S. Amateur.

The code of those golfers, and the generation that trained them, is this: Take nothing for granted, always remember you're getting paid to play a game, and act like a pro. You can easily imagine DiMarco playing the Tour 30 years ago, in an Amana hat, wearing Sansabelt slacks, using MacGregor balls. In the late 1970s DiMarco made a study of journeyman Bob Gilder, who had played with Chris's father, Rich, in a pro-am, at the old Jackie Gleason tournament in Fort Lauderdale, an event Jack Nicklaus won every year, or so it seemed.

DiMarco talks and plays and drives the same way--fast. At home in Orlando, in the gated community around the Heathrow Country Club, he zips around at speeds up to 40 mph in his souped-up golf buggy, late for his regular game with 15 or 20 fellow pros and low-handicap buddies (the car-wash guys among them). They all will tell you that DiMarco, who has earned almost $16 million in 10 full seasons on the PGA Tour, will cut off your fingers to win a $400 bet. On tee shots DiMarco will routinely have his ball in the air within 15 seconds of the preceding player picking up his tee. More typical on Tour is 30 to 50 seconds. His struggle to deal with slow play will be magnified at Pinehurst, where the first two rounds, with the tricky chipping and putting, could take nearly six hours.

DiMarco grew up in a sports-crazed house. Rich played basketball at St. John's in the mid-1950s and was coached by two legends: Joe Lapchick and Lou Carnesecca. Rich went on to become a successful executive in the wholesale food business in Florida, but he's a New Yorker--his Italian father was a hairdresser in the Bronx--at heart. Chris's mother, Norma, grew up in Queens, the daughter of a Finnish gravestone maker. Norma and Rich met at the beach, and on their early dates went bowling and to the driving range. Rich would sleep in his car to get a tee time at Bethpage, and he set pins to get free frames and lessons from Hall of Fame bowler Andy Varipapa.

Without ever expressing it, Norma and Rich raised their three sons never to forget their ethnic and working-class roots and to stay in touch with their inner New Yorker. "Don't take no crap from nobody" is a family credo, the firstborn, Mitch, says. The senior DiMarcos and the three sons with their families live within a few miles of one another. "Chris and his brothers were raised like Norma and I were raised," Rich says. "You don't get anything for nothing."

When Chris was seven, the DiMarcos moved from Long Island to a three-bedroom ranch house outside Orlando. The development had a nine-hole course with a double-wide trailer for a pro shop. The DiMarcos helped clear the land for the second nine, Chris moving limbs and small rocks. "It was never an upper-crusty thing," Rich says of the course. "Chris doesn't have that upper-crusty thing in him."

What he has is the willingness, after getting knocked down, to get up and try again. He got that from his brothers, Rick, who is five years older than Chris, and Mitch, who is 7 1/2 years older. When Mitch was 17, he and another big-guy high school football player, buddy Brad Estes, developed a three-kid indoor game. Mitch would defend one goal, Brad the other. Chris got the job of trying to penetrate the goals. He was the game ball. He took a beating, but he loved it.

Before Chris was a golfer, he was a football player. One year he was on an area all-star team that played a squad from Mexico, which was on a goodwill tour. Chris apparently never got the goodwill part of the message. He knocked two kids out of the game and was called for spearing. He was the quarterback, age 10.

Chris learned how to play golf from his father, but he wasn't recruited by any big-time college programs. So he walked on at Florida and made the team as a freshman. (The sorrow in his life today is that he is not the football coach at Florida. He and his brothers and friends make it to most home games, and Gators football is promoted on his golf bag alongside the brand names that pay for the space.) DiMarco developed his game quickly in four years at Florida, but his head lagged behind. He was a prolific club thrower; any offending club could wind up in the weeds 30 or more yards away. "You can be all-world," Alexander often told him, "when you learn to control yourself."

He worked out his club-throwing issues as he moved up through the pro circuits, playing in South Africa, in Canada and on the old Hogan tour, always with Amy on the bag as the young couple tried to save money. Club chucking was only one symptom; self-control is an underlying issue for all golfers. In that regard DiMarco had two big breakthroughs at the Masters this year. Playing in the final twosome with Woods on Sunday, DiMarco hit his A-plus tee shot on the 1st hole. Woods's drive was 75 yards longer. "It is intimidating," DiMarco says, reliving the experience. In years past he might have marched down the fairway thinking, Why am I so average? At Augusta he acknowledged the feelings of intimidation and dealt with them: All I can do is knock it on the green first and put it close. DiMarco did that often enough, closing with a 68 to Tiger's 71, finishing the 72 holes seven shots clear of the field and setting up the sudden-death playoff, which Woods won on the first hole with a birdie.

When it was over Woods said to him, "It was a battle." To win golf's big events, you sometimes, in the late going, have to shed the Tour's everyday stroke-play mentality, switch gears and adapt a match-play mentality. Nobody does this better than Tiger.

The second discovery may have been even more valuable. Woods's pace of play generally is deliberate, but on Masters Sunday it was painfully slow. DiMarco did not fight it. He was playing the best golfer in the world, being watched by tens of millions around the world. Those in the gallery were openly rooting for the underdog, who had won over a lot of people with his feisty, nationalistic fist-pumping play in the Ryder Cup. (On the 6th hole of the second day at Oakland Hills, Sergio García of Spain, DiMarco's opponent--and friend--put his arm around DiMarco and said, "You know, there is a fine line between playing excited and being over the top." In the privacy of the next tee, OB said what DiMarco was thinking, "Hey, Serg--this is a home game.") At Augusta, DiMarco followed Tiger's lead. He started checking out the little shots every which way too.

The runner-up finish took no toll, even though DiMarco wound up a shot out of a playoff at his next tournament, in New Orleans. He told his father, "I know it's taking me a while to get my next win, but watch out when I do." The fact is, DiMarco received nearly as much credit for his second-place showing at Augusta as Woods did for winning. "He gave the fans what they wanted," Mitch DiMarco says. People want to see someone--especially someone they can relate to--stand up to Woods, but they also want to see Tiger win. (Golf fans will get to see the two go head-to-head again at Pinehurst; DiMarco, Woods and Luke Donald will play together in the first two rounds.)

Maybe you've heard the story before. Remember Rocky Balboa? The smaller, scrappy fighter gets into the ring with Apollo Creed. Rocky is way overmatched, so of course he loses. But he's a winner because he hung in there, and that near upset gives him the strength to come back again and again and again.

DiMarco received NEARLY AS MUCH CREDIT for his second-place showing as Woods did for winning. "He gave the fans what they wanted," says DiMarco's brother Mitch.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanROUGHING IT Though he lost a three-way playoff in last year's PGA at Whistling Straits, DiMarco still played his way onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team.COLOR PHOTOROBERT BECKPUMPED DiMarco capped his final-round comeback at the Masters by tying Woods with a pressure-packed par save at 18.