- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Once again the Claw is dug in atop the Masters leader board.

For the third time in the last five years, PGA Tour veteran Chris DiMarco swiped the opening-round spotlight at Augusta National, scratching his way to 4 under through 14 holes yesterday to claim the overnight lead at the soggy 69th Masters.

Like 71 other players in the 93-man field, DiMarco failed to complete his opening round after heavy morning showers pushed back first-round tee times by more than five hours. DiMarco and the other three quarters of the field who had their first rounds suspended at dusk will resume play at 9:45 a.m. today, with second-round play scheduled to begin at 10:20.

“I never thought we would get in this many holes,” said DiMarco, nicknamed “the Claw” because of his unconventional shaft-clawing putting grip. “It was such a mess this morning that most of us were thinking washout.”

Heavy rains and lightning did push the start of play back to 1:30 p.m. and force a two-tee start, but Augusta National’s high-tech subterranean green vacuums made certain that the entire day would not be lost. And just as he did in 2001 (65) and last year (69), DiMarco burst out of the blocks and sprinted around the 7,290-yard, par-72 layout, overwhelming an opening bogey at No. 10 with birdies at 13, 15, 1, 2 and 3.

“I’ve felt comfortable every year I’ve been here,” said DiMarco, a 36-year-old three-time winner on tour who tied for sixth at last year’s Masters while playing in Sunday’s final pairing with winner Phil Mickelson. “I like the golf course. It sets up good for me. It appeals to my eye. I like the imagination you have to have around the greens and think that really goes with my game.”

Aside from his odd grip, perhaps DiMarco is best known for giving Mickelson the line on the 18-foot birdie bolt that won Lefty last year’s Masters on the event’s 72nd hole. But DiMarco backed up that Masters finish with a near-miss major breakout at last year’s PGA Championship, which he lost to Vijay Singh in a three-man playoff.

And after earning roster spots on Uncle Sam’s last two international teams (2003 Presidents Cup, 2004 Ryder Cup), DiMarco has evolved into far more than the non-threatening rabbit who carded an opening 65 to lead the 2001 Masters in his first official trip around Augusta National.

“This is a marathon, and we’ve got a long way to go,” said DiMarco, who will resume his opening round on the par-3, sixth hole this morning. “I’m going to have to play 22 holes tomorrow, and who knows what can happen out there.”

Neither Hensby nor Donald has ever come close to contending in a major. The last-blooming Hensby, a 33-year-old Australian famous for sleeping in his car while grinding his way through the mini-tours, is likely to show up on the first tee this afternoon looking like a player who spent the night in the back seat.

Donald, a much-ballyhooed Englishman who blossomed at last year’s Ryder Cup, is at the other end of the talent spectrum. The 27-year-old Donald has six top-15 finishes in seven starts on the PGA Tour this season, and only experience would seem to stand between the consistent Brit and major contention.

One behind that pair is a trio of lurking major monsters in Singh, Mickelson and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen. All are among the top-five in world rankings, and Singh and Mickelson make up half of the Fab Four that dominated pre-tournament storylines.

The other half of that quartet floundered yesterday, as Ernie Els (3 over through 11) and Tiger Woods (2 over through 12) staggered around the track in atypical form.

Woods, the most decorated member of the big four, suffered through one of the ultimate hard-luck rounds of his professional career. Looking to get back to level par on his opening nine, Woods smoked his second to the back of the par-5, 13th to set up a lengthy eagle putt.

Expecting the morning deluge to have slowed down one of the layout’s most treacherous putts, he was just a touch heavy-handed on the downhill approach putt to the front-left pin. As a result, his first putt coasted past the pin and trickled all the way off the green and into the green-fronting hazard, leading to a bogey that pushed him to 2 over.

Just over an hour later, Woods was once again looking to return to level par after pulverizing a 345-yard drive at No. 1. He hit a perfectly judged wedge to the front-left flag only to have the approach strike the very bottom of the pin on its way to earth and ricochet into the front bunker.

Instead of the deuce or kickaway for birdie he deserved, he was short-sided with an impossible downhill lie in the sand that guaranteed a bogey. Obviously ruffled after the wet and wicked day, Woods stalked off the property without speaking to the media.

“He’s got a few good breaks over his career,” said DiMarco when one reporter went seeking sympathy for Woods. “What do you want me to tell you — ‘darn?’ That’s just golf.”

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