- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

LAKE MANASSAS, Va. — Rarely has a push proved so profitable.

The U.S. and International squads battled to a 3-3 draw in yesterday’s first four-ball session at the Presidents Cup, leaving Gary Player’s visitors clinging to a tenuous one-point overall advantage (61/2-51/2) heading into today’s double-shot of matches. But the scoreboard can’t do justice to what the Americans discovered among the wind and rain yesterday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club.

First, Tiger Woods found his game, a rarity at these team match-play competitions and a reality capable of generating that foe-crippling emotion known as fear among Player’s charges.

And second, the United States found its soul, a commodity that has been conspicuously absent in a recent skein of team failures, in the form of fiery veteran Chris DiMarco.

“He is unbelievable,” said Phil Mickelson of DiMarco after the latter rallied the pair from 2-down with four to play to earn the U.S. a halve against the sturdy International tandem of Michael Campbell and Angel Cabrera in yesterday’s opening match. “He’s one of the toughest guys we have on the PGA Tour. … The birdies he made on [Nos. 15 and 17] were two of the most impressive I’ve ever seen.”

Ironically, the 37-year-old DiMarco has been tagged as one of the tour’s weakest stroke-play closers after a series of final-round flameouts during the last three seasons. But if he has struggled as a finisher in regular PGA Tour events, he has more than proved his mettle in U.S. team settings. Last year, he was the only U.S. player at the Ryder Cup with a winning record (2-1-1), the lone U.S. bright spot in the European blackout at Oakland Hills. And this week, he’s 1-0-1 thus far, carrying both the world’s No. 3 (Mickelson) and the team’s emotional banner.

Midway through yesterday’s four-ball matches, about the time storms forced an 80-minute delay in the action, Jack Nicklaus’ troops were in a healthy spot of trouble. They were down in four matches (the Mickelson-DiMarco match among them), and the home crowd at RTJ was subdued. The rally that followed the delay certainly wasn’t epic — two of the trailing U.S. pairings scraping out halves. But it was perhaps demonstrative of a newfound doggedness rarely exhibited by recent U.S. match-play teams.

And it was DiMarco, more than any other U.S. player, who personified the combination of clutch play and infectious energy that made a promising appearance for the home team yesterday afternoon.

Down two through 14 holes in his partnership with Mickelson, DiMarco nearly holed a 9-iron from a bunker at No. 15 to bring the pair back to 1-down, whipping the crowd into a froth as he marched down the fairway pumping his fist and exhorting them to ratchet up the decibel level. And then with Campbell looking at a 10-footer for birdie to potentially close the match at No. 17, DiMarco put the claw to work on a 16-foot birdie bid of his own, coasting home the putt to shrink the cup for Campbell.

Given the sudden pressure flip, the U.S. Open champion failed to follow DiMarco’s heroics. And when both teams parred the 18th, the U.S. team had stolen a pivotal piece of a point.

But DiMarco’s demeanor is perhaps even more valuable than play. On an image-obsessed U.S. team that has routinely seemed less emotionally invested in these events than its International or European counterpart, DiMarco is a refreshingly raw nerve, a red-faced ball of intensity with bloodshot eyes and obvious red, white and blue blood. Perhaps he’s the heir apparent to the team’s firebrand role, a crucial part without an obvious player since the competitive exits of Paul Azinger, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman.

“I love the team part of it,” DiMarco said. “We only get to do it once a year. It is so awesome to be part of these 12 guys, these 12 Americans. It just pumps me up. … It makes you want to go out and play.”

Interestingly, the second-most demonstrative player on the U.S. team yesterday was Woods. The game’s 29-year-old titan riled plenty of people early in his career when he called the Ryder Cup an exhibition. And entering this week’s fray, his 15-18-2 record in such events seemed ample proof of a lack of complete commitment from the man for whom domination is standard fare.

But nobody would accuse the Woods who has showed up at RTJ this week of an indifferent performance. After losing an opening foursome match in which he received no help from veteran Fred Couples, Woods absolutely savaged the 7,335-yard, par-72 layout yesterday.

Between back spasms and icings, Woods and partner Jim Furyk toppled the Australian pair of Stuart Appleby and Mark Hensby 3 and 2. Woods, who hit a handful of irons that seemed targeted via GPS, played those 16 holes in 7-under on his own ball. Fact is, Furyk could have left his clubs in the team room, and Woods still would have sent the Aussies down under.

And unlike at some past team events, where his energy has been tempered either by his partner or his play, Woods genuinely seems to be enthused and enjoying himself this week — a very sobering thought for the Internationals.

“Tiger’s record might not be the best in the Presidents Cup, but I’ll tell you one thing, he gets pumped up to play,” said Nicklaus, a notoriously poor performer in the Ryder Cup. “He enjoys it. He plays hard. He’s a good team member. I promise you he’s a lot better team member than I was when I played in the Ryder Cup. He has a lot more enthusiasm than we had when we were playing. The guy has been absolutely terrific.”

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