DiMarco ready to prove he can master Augusta

Saturday, April 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) _ There's at least one person who believes Chris DiMarco will hold up just fine at the Masters.

``If he plays bad, it's because he plays bad,'' said Rich DiMarco, beaming at the 18th hole. ``It won't be because he's nervous. He's over that. He's been out here awhile. He's getting good.''

OK, so that's a father talking.

DiMarco clearly faced the most pressure-packed round of golf in his life Saturday when he teed off in the final pair of the third round, with Tiger Woods no less.

As play resumed on a sunny morning, DiMarco and Woods waited to tee off at 2:10 p.m. EDT.

``I have never played with Tiger,'' DiMarco said Friday, still holding the lead with a 10-under-par 134. ``The only time I've ever played with him was in a practice round when he was still an amateur. I said back then, he's an aggressive player. He's got to learn a little bit.''

DiMarco, a 32-year-old Masters rookie, was only kidding, of course. Woods is the greatest player in the game, the holder of three major titles and trying to complete his distinctive version of the Grand Slam.

DiMarco already has proved he is no fluke. He followed an opening-round 65 with a 69 Friday, good for a two-stroke lead over Woods and Phil Mickelson. DiMarco also set a rookie record for the lowest 36-hole score.

Another group of five golfers, including David Duval and Lee Janzen, was just three shots back.

DiMarco will get a chance to experience what Jerry Kelly felt like when paired with Woods in the final round of The Players Championship. Kelly compared it to playing golf in the middle of an expressway.

``I'm excited. I really am,'' DiMarco insisted. ``I have gained a lot of fans over the last few days. We go to a normal tournament and everything is pro-Tiger. I'm sure there will be a lot of pro-Tigers, but I think I've gained a lot of fan base out there. I'm sure I will hear a lot of ``Go Chrises!,'' which will be nice.''

Woods shot a 66, putting him in exactly the same position he was four years ago when he romped into history with a 12-stroke victory at the Masters.

``I'm right there in the ball game, and with a great chance on the weekend,'' he said.

Woods isn't alone.

Mickelson recovered from a disastrous stretch for a 69 and looked poised to win his first major championship.

``I don't think there's ever been a better opportunity for me to break through and win a major as this tournament now,'' he said.

Right behind was Duval, showing no signs of rust or a bad right wrist, back for his fourth straight run at a green jacket after a 66 left him only three strokes out of the lead.

``I came in here with every intention of winning the golf tournament, and I still have that,'' he said. ``I'm excited about my prospects.''

For all the hype over Woods' quest to hold the trophies of all four professional majors, this Masters is living up to expectations in more ways than one.

It all began unfolding Saturday on a course expected to turn firm, fast and cruel, a drastic change from soft conditions that yielded 73 rounds under par over the first two days, the most in nine years.

And it won't take long for DiMarco to experience a weekend at a major.

``What a stage,'' he said. ``Playing with Tiger, the best player in the world, on the best course in the world. You can pinch me if you want. It feels like a dream.''

If so, it should seem familiar to Woods.

He also started 70-66 in 1997 when he set 20 tournament records to win his first major. He blew away Colin Montgomerie in the third round and left everyone else in his wake, winning by a record 12 strokes with a record score of 270.

``It doesn't really matter who's up on top of the board,'' Woods said. ``I know that. I've experienced that. And I go out there with that mindset.''

Mickelson refused to collapse despite a sloppy bogey on No. 10 and a tee shot into Rae's Creek on No. 12 that led to double bogey. He birdied three of the last six holes, saved par from the bunker on the 18th and was in great shape.

Joining Duval at 137 was two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen (70), Match Play champion Steve Stricker (71), Angel Cabrera (71) and Toshi Izawa (66).

Another stroke back were two other major winners _ two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal (68) and former British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia (66). Ernie Els made bogey on the last hole for a 68 and was at 139.

Does a guy like DiMarco fit with that cast of champions?

``Why not?'' he asked. ``Maybe this is my week to get there.''

Maybe he is the Bob May of Augusta, playing as though he has nothing to lose in the face of weekend pressure. Of course, Woods always seems to come through when the stakes were high.

``If you haven't been there, it's tough,'' said Woods, who beat May in a playoff in last year's PGA.

That's what awaits DiMarco, not to mention a course that began drying out late Friday afternoon under partly sunny skies, with a forecast of more dry weather and wind that wreaks havoc at Augusta National, especially around Amen Corner.

Not everyone will be around to watch the drama unfold.

Greg Norman won't have to worry about another dose of Masters heartache. He suffered plenty Friday with his worst score ever at Augusta _ an 82 _ to miss the cut.

So did Davis Love III, risking it all with a shot out of trees on No. 15 that went into the water. He had a 75 and went home early for the first time since 1994.