AUGUSTA, Ga. - Chris DiMarco has a putting grip that looks as if he's choking a chicken, which is about the same manner with which he is holding on to the second-round lead at the 65th Masters.
Today, he gets a third-round pairing with Tiger Woods, who managed to wrap his paws around the Augusta National Golf Club and squeeze out the same two-round total he produced when he won the green jacket in 1997.
It will be all DiMarco can do not to apply that claw-grip to his own throat.
DiMarco followed an opening 65 with a 3-under 69 yesterday to pad his lead to two shots in his first appearance in the Masters. This time, though, it's not just Steve Stricker and Angel Cabrera who are chasing him through the Georgia pines.
Right behind him are Woods and Phil Mickelson, the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players, respectively. Another shot back is a refreshed and eager David Duval, the world's No.6 player who is right back where he always seems to find himself on the weekend at Augusta National - flirting with the lead.
“Before Woods and Duval was Woods and Duval,” DiMarco said, unfazed by his position at 10-under 134, the lowest 36-hole total by a Masters rookie. “They had to get there somehow, right? Maybe this is my week to get there.”
DiMarco is halfway home, though he faces the ultimate test today when he is paired with Woods, who birdied the last two holes and four of the final six to shoot 66 and stand at 8-under 136, two shots back. Woods has now matched the exact score from each of his first two rounds in 1997, when he went on to win his first major championship with a record score (18-under 270) and victory margin (12 strokes).
Woods is tied with Mickelson, who rebounded from a watery double-bogey at the par-3 12th to birdie three of the next four holes for 69.
“I have never played with Tiger,” DiMarco said. “The only time I've ever played with him was in a practice round when he was still an amateur. I said back then, he's an aggressive player, he's got to learn a little bit.”
After a brief pause, DiMarco said, “He learned quickly.”
Woods certainly put his lessons on display early yesterday, when he birdied four of the first eight holes, then three of the last final four to tie for best round of the day. It was matched by Duval, whose only mistake of the day was a three-putt bogey at the par-3 16th. That allowed Duval to jump into a tie for fourth with four other players, including former two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, at 7-under 137.
“The golf course is going to get more difficult, and it's nice to be in a position where you don't have to go out there and have to shoot something low on a difficult golf course,” Woods said.
That's why it was important for Woods to post something low and not squander another opportunity to take advantage of Augusta National, which has been defenseless. There have already been 73 sub-par rounds, most since 1992 (82), and the 36-hole cut was 1-over 145, which ties a Masters record.
“It's as easy as I've seen it play, maybe ever,” said Arnold Palmer, who shot a second-round 76 but missed the cut for the 18th consecutive year.
Woods used his awesome length to birdie three of the four par-5s - he two-putted from 15 feet at No. 8 and 30 feet at the 500-yard 15th - and that included getting up and down from the greenside bunker at No. 13 after hitting a 7-iron approach from 212 yards. One of his few gaffes came at the par-3 16th, when he three-putted from 20 feet. But he atoned with a four-foot birdie at No. 17 and an eight-footer for birdie at the 405-yard finishing hole.
That put him in ideal position to win his fourth major championship in a row.
“I think with the conditions being as difficult as they could be on the weekend, you could actually see somebody come out of the pack with a good round,” Woods said. “If you play a good round, you are obviously going to move up the board a little bit more than you would if the conditions were soft and benign.
“But it's also nice knowing you don't have to shoot that to get yourself back in the tournament. Right now, I'm right there in the ballgame, and with a great chance on the weekend.”