- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. As one of the handful of amateurs in this 65th Masters, James Driscoll is bunking in the Crow's Nest atop the clubhouse this week. He's getting a big kick out of his occasional Brushes with Greatness. On Tuesday night he caught a glimpse of Arnold Palmer. A few seconds later he crossed paths with Seve Ballesteros.

"This place just oozes with history," he says. "You never know who you're going to bump into."

Driscoll seems determined to make a little history himself that is, if his play in the first round is any indication. He shot a 68 yesterday to carve out a seventh-place spot for himself on the crowded leader board. That's the best start by an amateur in 18 years. Indeed, only three amateurs have ever posted lower scores here.

And that means something at Augusta. The golf course, let's not forget, was originally designed by the most famous amateur of them all, Bobby Jones. The tournament takes very good care of its amateurs, holding a dinner for them on Monday night and enhancing their experience by housing them in the hallowed clubhouse. When Georgia Tech sophomore Matt Kuchar finished in the top 25 three years ago, the whole country club seemed to take pride in his performance.

Driscoll earned his invitation by coming in second in the 2000 U.S. Amateur. He's a 23-year-old University of Virginia grad who grew up in Brookline, Mass., the youngest of seven children. All of them were in attendance yesterday to cheer him on along with, according to brother Richard's estimate, "40 cousins minimum and 30 or 40 guys from Charles River Country Club," where James learned the game. "There were over 100 of us," he said, "and I'd say there'll be more [today]."

Sister Molly, who works for New Balance, got a bunch of golf caps red, green, yellow, you name it embroidered with the name "Driscoll" on the back. Family members are holed up in a rented house, sleeping wherever they can find room. "One of my uncles has a tremendous snoring problem," brother Timmy said, "so in one room we've got two beds but only one person in it. I brought a tent in case of an emergency, but we haven't needed it yet."

All the Driscoll kids were athletes. Richard, probably the least physically gifted, "was on the championship intramural street hockey team at Providence," Timmy said with a smile. Timmy played a year of minor league hockey in the Boston Bruins system. Paul started out playing golf lefty, moved around to the right side in his mid-20s when he couldn't get below a 4 or 5 handicap and became a scratch player. John was the golf captain at Boston College. Molly played on the men's golf team at Brown (and on the women's ice hockey team as well).

But James, 14 years younger than Richard, the oldest sibling, has outdone them all. He was runner-up in the U.S. Junior Amateur in '95, won the prestigious North and South amateur in '99 and slugged it out for 39 holes with Jeff Quinney last year in the U.S. Amateur. He took the loss to Quinney hard, to be sure, but "getting to play in the Masters is a nice consolation prize," he said.

And yesterday he had a round that brought back memories of Billy Joe Patton (third in the Masters in '54) and Charlie Coe (second in '61). He started out with two birdies, but it was on the fourth hole that he began to sense that this might be a special week. He had a putt for another birdie from about 25 feet, and "I hit it way too hard," he said. But it went in the hole.

The same thing happened on No. 9. He had a downhill putt, 25 feet away, and struck it much too firmly. "I think it would have rolled off the green if it had missed," he said. "My eyes were getting real big." But it, too, ended up in the bottom of the cup. James Driscoll, amateur, was 4-under par in the Masters.

It wasn't quite as smooth sailing on the back nine, but Driscoll stood firm. He undid a bogey at the 10th with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 13th. And he made up for a bogey at 15 when his second shot went for a dip in the pond by holing out from a greenside bunker on 17. (The same bunker from which Tom Watson, one of his playing partners, blasted to 20 feet from, admittedly, a much tougher lie.)

If Driscoll was nervous about having to tee up with Watson in his first Masters appearance, he didn't show it. He sank one 6-footer after another down the stretch. These amateurs don't act much like amateurs anymore and Driscoll thinks he knows why. When Kuchar finishes 21st in the Masters and Jenny Chuasiriporn nearly wins the Women's Open and 15-year-old Ty Tyron not only makes the cut but shoots 10-under in the Honda Classic, "other amateurs feed off that," he said. "The success of one amateur helps the psyche of other amateurs."

Driscoll won't be an amateur much longer. He plans to turn pro after playing in the U.S. Amateur one last time this summer. So he's enjoying it while he can enjoying the Crow's Nest life, enjoying being the darling of the crowd, enjoying this gathering of family and friends. Shooting a 68 in the first round of the Masters made yesterday about as close to perfect as golf gets.

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