- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Claw has a green jacket in his clutches and a Tiger on his tail.

The 69th Masters has come down to a 27-hole catfight between major-tested veteran Chris DiMarco and major maven Tiger Woods.

The finale has been perfectly handicapped. DiMarco has a four-stroke lead at 13 under and a resume littered with recent major near-misses. Woods has his game back, eight major titles to his credit and the most daunting Sunday record in Grand Slam history when he’s in contention.

“I’m more excited about it than I am nervous,” said DiMarco, who ran his outrageous streak of bogey-free holes to 44 yesterday by playing 26 holes in 8 under. The 36-year-old posted a second-round 67 yesterday morning and then coasted around Augusta National’s front nine in 33 strokes before third-round play was suspended by darkness at 7:35p.m.

“That’s what we’re all striving for, to be in [this] position and have the adrenaline going and see how you react,” DiMarco said. “I can promise you I’m going to have fun tomorrow because after being in this spot a couple of times last year, I know this is what it’s all about.”

DiMarco was tied for the lead with Phil Mickelson entering last year’s final round, only to fade to a 76. He was even closer to scooping up the major spoils at Whistling Straits, where he came up short on a 15-footer on the 72nd hole that could have won last year’s PGA Championship before falling to Vijay Singh in a three-man playoff.

Sure, the two close calls have left scar tissue. But they’ve also given DiMarco a foundation of experience and firsthand knowledge of how to handle such pressure.

“I watched how it was done last year,” said DiMarco, who has used just 66 putts in 45 holes. “If anybody had the best seat in the house, it was me. … I learned a lot about myself at those events. I learned that you have to walk a little slower, understand your adrenaline, stay in the moment and, most of all from Phil, have fun.”

Few players have had much fun playing with Woods late on a major Sunday. And earning a spot alongside DiMarco in today’s final pairing will certainly be Woods’ goal when the field returns to the 7,290-yard, par-72 layout at 8a.m. If he continues yesterday’s torrid exhibition, there’s little doubt he’ll be able to fend off Dane Thomas Bjorn (8 under) for the right to face DiMarco head-to-head.

What Woods did yesterday was play 26 holes of the kind of epic golf that was his major standard from 1999 to 2002. Pounding fairway after fairway and attacking pin after pin, Woods overwhelmed an opening 74 by carding 12 birdies against a lone bogey, surging from near the cut line (4-over 148) to within striking distance of DiMarco with a tournament-best second-round 66 followed by a third-round front nine 31.

“[The first two days] I kept hitting quality golf shots, but I wasn’t getting anything out of it,” said the 29-year-old Woods, who is looking to snap a streak of 10 majors without a win that dates back to the 2002 U.S. Open. “Then all of a sudden, the momentum started to kind of build, and I started making putts. … This tournament is a long haul, and things have turned around for me. I now have a fighting chance.”

That might be an understatement. Woods is 8-0 in majors when he has been in the last pairing. Regardless of the four-shot deficit and the two-year drought, it would shock the golf world if he didn’t win his fourth green jacket this afternoon. He has never blown an event of consequence, and he’s 40-5 worldwide when he has led or shared the lead after three rounds.

Granted, he’s not leading at the 69th Masters. But he’s just four shots behind a man with just three PGA Tour victories and no major wins with 27 holes to play. Better yet, there’s only one other player (Bjorn) within five of Woods on the leader board. In a three-man showdown against such undecorated foes, you have to wonder if even the relatives of DiMarco and Bjorn would bet on their beloveds.

Yet Woods has never come from behind to win a major, and DiMarco is a fighter with a superb short game and gritty resolve. He contends last year’s major hiccups were merely growing pains, necessary emotional hurdles along the learning curve of major success. And when you hear the sincerity in his voice, it’s hard not to believe him.

“I know there’s a lot of golf to play, and I know who’s behind me, but I really feel like I’m ready [to win a major],” said DiMarco. “If I keep putting like I have been and stay in control of my game, I’ll be right there. The only person who can possibly get in my way tomorrow is myself.”

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