Chris DiMarco has done pretty well this season while battling a balky swing. So when that part of his game finally caught up with his putting today at the BellSouth Classic, he went to the top of the leader board.
DiMarco shot a 5-under-par 67 in the first round, taking advantage of several short birdie chances after solid iron shots. He narrowly missed two more birdie putts from close range.
Six players were tied one shot back, including defending champion Retief Goosen, and another seven players were two shots behind. The event is the final tuneup for the Masters, the first major of the year.
"I've been fighting my swing a little bit all year," said DiMarco, who has three top-10 finishes in nine starts. "Today was one of the better swinging rounds I've had, where I was very consistent with my iron play and had a lot of really good shots at the hole.
"I was very much in control of my game, which I have not been that much this year."
With a lack of rain, TPC at Sugarloaf played uncharacteristically hard and firm in the opening round. That made the greens less receptive to approach shots and forced players to be more conservative.
"The faster the better for me," DiMarco said. "I don't know why, but I just like really fast greens. I can see the lines better. I like this course, especially when it plays like this. I think it plays better fast and hard."
Rookie John E. Morgan briefly took the lead at 6 under with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 fourth, his 13th hole, but a bogey three holes later moved him back into a tie with DiMarco. Then Morgan made a double bogey on his final hole, the par-4 ninth, and joined that large group at 69.
Goosen, the 2001 U.S. Open champion, followed his victory in this tournament last year with a second-place finish in the Masters behind Tiger Woods. Like DiMarco, Goosen would like to see the greens stay the same for the final three rounds.
"I prefer the firmer greens," Goosen said. "There won't be anybody just running away with it -- keeps the field bunched up, and the better players go to the top.
"A few holes, you have to land it 15 yards short of the flag to get it to stop. It's certainly a different golf course than it was last year."
DiMarco also reached 6 under before a late bogey, this one at No. 17. With an in-between distance from the middle of the fairway on the par-4 hole, he pulled his 7-iron left of the green, and he couldn't get up and down to save par.
Phil Mickelson, playing in his first tournament since taking a month off for the birth of his third child, shot a 73.