DiMarco leads with 65, but Augusta still likely to growl soon

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

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Occasionally, about as often as a Gene Sarazen double-eagle, Augusta National Golf Club lets down its guard and turns user-friendly. Thursday was such a day.

Wind was negligent, skies cloudy and greens receptive from early-week rain; 33 of 92 players broke par. Chris DiMarco led the way with a 7-under 65, the lowest opening round since 1996 when Greg Norman equaled the course record with a 63.

DiMarco, attired in a green shirt to mark the occasion, was the third consecutive first-time participant to claim the first-day lead. Brandel Chamblee shot 69 in 1999 and finished tied for 18th. Dennis Paulson shot 68 last year and finished tied for 14th.

"It was pretty neat," said DiMarco, 32.

Players had better enjoy the benign conditions while they can. The 70-degree temperatures are expected to climb the rest of the week, and so will the scores. Assuming there is no more rain, the putting surfaces will become slicker than a Bourbon Street pickpocket and cause all sorts of headaches.

"If the wind kicks up a little bit and the sun comes out, it can change in a hurry, and I don't imagine they are going to be putting any water on the course," said Steve Stricker, who shared second place with Angel Cabrera of Argentina at 66. "It can change very drastically in a matter of a half a day or a couple hours."

Which is why Tiger Woods seemed satisfied with a 70. Any player who shoots under par in a major championship, especially a late starter like Woods, is sure to be in the hunt.

"I thought I played pretty solid," he said. "Overall, I'm very pleased."

Woods, attempting to become the first player to hold all four major titles consecutively, has history on his side. The last time he started with a 70 at Augusta National was in 1997, and he won by a record-breaking 12 strokes.

He got off to a shaky start Thursday by pushing his opening drive into the trees on the right. Woods purposely punched a 2-iron into the front bunker, blasted to six feet and missed his par putt.

So it went for the top-ranked player in the world. Riding a two-tournament winning streak and a hot putter coming into the Masters, Woods failed to convert several good birdie chances but avoided making a major mistake. He hit 15 of 18 greens, missed only four fairways and used 29 putts.

"The golf course is set up awfully difficult," said Woods. "The pins are touching some corners, and you have to make a lot of 15-footers if you want to make birdies, and I wasn't able to do that today."

The course was anything but a pushover for former champions Arnold Palmer (82), Craig Stadler (79), Tom Watson (78), Fuzzy Zoeller (77), Seve Ballesteros (76) and Nick Faldo (75), although The King wowed his Army by stiffing his tee shot at the par-3 12th hole and made a birdie.

Jack Nicklaus, 61, who owns six green jackets but lost to Palmer, 71, last week in a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match, shot 73, as did Gary Player, 65.

"Gary played terrific," Nicklaus said. "It's a long golf course for him, and he played beautifully."

Asked if he was ready to become a ceremonial starter in the event, Nicklaus replied, "No, not yet."

Neither is Greg Norman.

"The golf course is the best I've ever seen it," he said after a respectable 71. "The greens are perfect."

There are 19 players within five strokes of DiMarco, including defending champion Vijay Singh, who birdied the final hole for a 69. The more intriguing names include Phil Mickelson and Lee Janzen at 67, former winner Mark O'Meara and Jim Furyk at 69, and two-time champ Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia and Paul Azinger at 70.

"I feel like I've been robbed," said Garcia. "I probably hit three shots which if they were two feet longer they would be perfect. What can you do? That's the way the course is."

Wait until the weekend. Garcia hasn't seen anything yet. Augusta National hasn't even begun to show its teeth.

"A little wind, a little moisture taken out of the greens, it's going to be treacherous," Furyk said.

The course seldom plays favorites. One slip and you're fighting to save par. Or worse.

"Every hole is key out here," said Chris Perry after a 68. "You have to play disciplined. This course is a chess game."

Perry is one of the few players who doesn't sport a logo on his cap -- not that he opposes the idea.

"I don't have a sponsor," he said. "I'm Blank Man. Hopefully, I'll get some TV time and change that."

Many are pulling for Mickelson, off to his best start since 1996. Lefty, David Duval (71) and Colin Montgomerie (73) of Scotland head the category of best players without a major title, a label they despise.

"I don't think about what's happened the last eight or nine years, and having not won," said Mickelson, who admitted Augusta represents his best opportunity. "I'm trying to focus on how I want to come out on top Sunday."

The fun has just begun.