Chris DiMarco's self-taught golf swing will never win a prize for purity, and he doesn't hit the ball all that far off the tee or even very accurately. His putting grip is called the "claw" and was employed initially as an act of desperation when his messy work on the greens on courses in Canada, South Africa and the Nationwide Tour very nearly had him thinking it might be time to change his day job.
But 10 years ago, when his friend Skip Kendall showed him the claw grip he been experimenting with for several years himself -- normal left-hand grip, with the right hand almost upside down to guide the putter -- DiMarco's putting and his playing career took a marked turn for the better.
And now, after four straight seasons of earning more than $2 million in prize money, he has literally clawed his way into the top 10 in the world rankings, using a brilliant short game to help cover up whatever other slight deficiencies he may have. He'll be considered one of the favorites to prevail here this week in the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional, and certainly the U.S. Open the following week at Pinehurst No. 2.
Two months ago, DiMarco, 36, also endeared himself to golf fans when he finished second to Tiger Woods in the Masters. DiMarco took a four-shot lead into the final 27 holes, blew it all within 30 minutes of the Sunday morning completion of the third round, then battled Tiger Woods shot for shot down the stretch before Woods eventually prevailed on the first playoff hole.
"I don't think I can remember the last time where I've been congratulated so many times for losing," DiMarco said recently. "It was a lot of fun playing in that last group and performing the way I did and having a chance to win the tournament. Going toe-to-toe with Tiger was pretty special."
For DiMarco, it was the second straight major championship that he had a chance to win on the 72nd hole. At the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, DiMarco missed a 15-footer to win outright at the 18th hole on Sunday and eventually lost to Vijay Singh in a playoff. At the 2004 Masters, he also was in the final group Sunday, playing with Phil Mickelson, the eventual champion. DiMarco played poorly that day, shooting 76, and was more of a spectator than he was a threat, ending up in a tie for sixth place.
"When I teed off on the first hole the year before [in Augusta], there were probably 99.8 percent of the people rooting for Phil," he said. "I think my parents, my wife, my son and a couple of other friends there were rooting for me. This year, it was noticeably on my side. It's easier to play when there are a lot of people rooting for you. It really started getting me pumped up, and I was really into it."
Down in Gainesville, Fla., Buddy Alexander, his old golf coach at the University of Florida, also paid close attention to the progress of a player he inherited in his first year on the job, when DiMarco was a hot-headed sophomore prone to throwing clubs and shouting obscenities when shots or putts didn't turn out as he'd planned. He didn't like to practice much, either, preferring to simply go out and play golf.
"I run a pretty structured program," Alexander recalled. "We'd have a range day, where I'd talk to the team and when I finished, Chris just wanted to go play, and forget hitting a bag of balls. He did have trouble controlling his emotions when I first got there. He also had some bad equipment [a Louise Suggs driver], and he didn't really understand what we were trying to do. We were in Austin playing in an event, and you might say we had a little talk where I explained to him what I wanted and what I expected.
"Once he figured out a few things and we got him better equipment, he was fine. I don't think he ever shot anything higher than 74 after that. From what I see and what I know, he's changed very little. His greatest asset is his competitive spirit. He wants to win, whether it's Ping-Pong or poker."
Despite his lofty status in the rankings, DiMarco, with only three victories over his entire tour career, hasn't won since January 2002.
Some of his playing peers have even suggested, usually anonymously, that his personally manufactured swing may not always hold up in crunch time. In addition to his PGA Championship and Augusta agony, he three-putted the 72nd hole to miss a playoff by a shot in New Orleans three weeks after his gritty performance in the Masters.
But DiMarco, who does not have a full-time teacher, firmly believes he's going to break through in a major championship before too long, with the swing he's always had. He's been in the top 10 in four of the last five majors, and those back-to-back second-place finishes hadn't been done since Tom Watson was runner-up in the '79 PGA Championship and 1980 Masters, also playoff losses. He was the only American player with a winning record (2-1-1) in the Ryder Cup loss to Europe last September when he admitted "that's the most nervous I've ever been."
But his experience at Augusta, very nearly holing out a chip at the 72nd hole Sunday that would have won the tournament, may have been a defining moment in his career.
"It's arguably the greatest golf course we play all year," he said. "In our biggest arena, as far as being under the microscope, I was able to perform there. Every year I play there I take out the fact that I am competing to win this championship, and I can't take anything but confidence going out of there."
He also said he found a new sense of self-worth after trading haymakers with Woods down the stretch. His 12-under 276 total that day would have won 61 of 69 previous Masters even during a week when he hit the fifth-shortest drives in the field, with Woods hitting the fourth-longest. Out-driven by 50 yards off almost every tee, DiMarco's true grit showed up time and again.
"It just shows that I've got guts," he said. "For me, that I know that if I dig deep enough, I can push away the fears -- the bad thoughts and I could just go ahead and play golf and perform -- I can look back and I can truly tell myself that I did everything in my power to win that golf tournament. I just got beat."