The azaleas are in full bloom and the grounds are pristine. But there is no golf at Augusta National today, no overpriced golf shirts and underpriced pimiento cheese sandwiches on a day that should be the final round of The Masters.
America has been fed a large dose of Masters memories this weekend by ESPN, which has been showing some of the great final rounds in their entirety.
Chris DiMarco hasn’t needed to watch.
He can just close his eyes and remember.
“It’s just hallowed grounds,” said the former Florida Gator golfer. “There’s nothing you can say about that place. And every time I go there, I have a lot of memories.”
Ya think? During a five-year stretch, DiMarco was everybody’s Sunday sidebar, the guy who almost won The Masters through sheer guts, who never backed down until some of the game’s greats wrestled the green jacket out of his hands.
He was a Masters rookie in 2001 and from his first round through a playoff loss in 2005, DiMarco was a major swatch in the patchwork quilt that was golf’s most famous event.
In his first try, he led after one round — a brilliant 65 — led again after the second round and was paired with Tiger Woods on Saturday.
“I have a two-shot lead and I’m playing with Tiger Woods for the first time ever and he’s going for the Tiger Slam,” DiMarco said. “It was fun. It was awesome. I held my own.”
Woods went on to win the 2001 Masters and DiMarco finished in a tie for 10th, not too shabby for his first effort. In 2002, he challenged again before finishing tied for 12th as Woods won his third green jacket.
The 2003 Masters, not so good. Rain wiped out the first round forcing golfers to double up on Friday.
“I played 35 holes and then the horn sounded,” he said. “It was ugly, I was 14-over or 15-over. I talked to four or five guys who were also going to miss the cut and they all said they weren’t coming back to play one hole.”
So DiMarco went home to catch his son Christian’s Little League game.
“I paid the price because it became a big deal that I withdrew,” DiMarco said. “I wrote a letter to (Masters chairman) Hootie Johnson telling him how sorry I was and how much the tournament meant to me and how much respect I have for it.
“I figured I’d be paired the next year with Bob Goalby and Tommy Aaron (former champs who were well past their prime). But they appreciated that I apologized.”
Instead, DiMarco found himself in the final pairing on Sunday, playing with good friend Phil Mickelson and tied for the lead.
“I remember Ernie Els was making a charge and we were walking off the eighth hole,” DiMarco said. “Phil tapped me on the butt with his club and said, ‘I don’t care which one of us wins, but the winner is coming out of our group so let’s go.’ “
It turned out to be Mickelson — who won his first major that Sunday with a birdie and a leap into the air — as DiMarco finished in a tie for sixth.
“Once I realized I wasn’t going to win I just took a seat back and kind of watched Phil and watched how aggressive he played and that helped me the next year,” DiMarco said.
In 2005, it was DiMarco again in the final pairing and he battled right to the end despite the famous chip-in on 16 by Woods. Woods made bogeys on the final two holes and DiMarco had a chip from the front of the green that would have won it.
But the shot skimmed off the flagstick and spun out of the hole as announcer Jim Nantz said, “How did that not go in?”
Woods won his fourth green jacket on the first playoff hole with a birdie as DiMarco’s chip on 18 missed by inches.
“If I win in 2005, everyone remembers it for the one that got away from Tiger,” he said, “and that didn’t happen very often.”
Injuries were a problem for DiMarco in the next two Masters as he missed both cuts and has not played in the tournament since then.
But what a stretch from 2001-05.
“Certain golf courses fit your eye,” he said. “And back then it wasn’t 7,700 yards. It was 7,100 yards so it didn’t really favor the bombers except maybe on the par-5s. I was so good with my irons. My distance control was so good and I always putted well. The faster the greens, the better for me.
“Those greens are so good there, if you miss a putt, you miss a putt.”
DiMarco has been back several times as a member of the Golf Channel team. He attended one Masters by using the pass allocated to Billy Horschel’s father.
“It’s still crazy to me I can’t get in that place,” he said. “I got one arm inside the sleeve, but if you don’t win you’re still commonfolk.
“I love that place and I love the grounds, but if you don’t win, you get bupkis. You don’t like their rules, they don’t care if you are there or not.”
DiMarco had two other runner-up finishes in majors, at the 2004 PGA in a playoff and the 2006 British Open.
“It doesn’t haunt me,” he said. “I played well in all of those tournaments down the stretch. Someone just played better.”
In 2018, DiMarco moved to Denver. He is on the Champions Tour (DiMarco is now 51) and was playing well before the stoppage of play because of the global pandemic.
“I think about that 2005 Masters, especially this week,” he said. “I was so close.”