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Golf: The blessing, curse of a close second at Augusta

By Karen Crouse
13 April 2015   |   4:51 am
AUGUSTA, Ga. — If his chip shot on the 72nd hole of the 2005 Masters had settled in the cup like a ball in a roulette pocket, Chris DiMarco would be a Masters champion, with the cachet that the title confers


AUGUSTA, Ga. — If his chip shot on the 72nd hole of the 2005 Masters had settled in the cup like a ball in a roulette pocket, Chris DiMarco would be a Masters champion, with the cachet that the title confers.

Instead, the ball spun out, and he went on to lose on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to Tiger Woods.

That is how close DiMarco came to winning his first major. Before draping the green jacket around Woods’s shoulders, Phil Mickelson, the 2004 champion, consoled DiMarco, who recalled Mickelson telling him, “I really wanted to put the jacket on you.”

DiMarco took comfort in his final-round 68, and his duel down the stretch with Woods, who beat him with the help of a holed chip on No. 16 that is part of Masters lore. DiMarco left Augusta National Golf Club confident that a major victory was within his grasp.

“It will happen for me, definitely,” he told reporters afterward. “I see myself wearing a green jacket someday.”

In his next 12 major appearances, DiMarco missed the cut six times, including the cut at the 2006 Masters. He recorded one other top-10 finish in the majors, a second at the 2006 British Open. Ten years after his close call with Masters immortality, DiMarco can better appreciate what Mickelson was trying to convey that day.

“Probably, at that point, I didn’t realize the magnitude of what had escaped me,” he said. “Phil knew. He had been close a lot of times, and he knew maybe this was one of the few times I’d have that chance to win a major.”

Augusta National holds the winners of the Masters in high esteem, inviting even those who are no longer on the competitive circuit back every year for a champions’ dinner and the par-3 contest. The winner joins an exclusive fraternity. The runner-up becomes a historical footnote.

Finishing second is like holding a lottery ticket with every number but one. If a player finishes strong Sunday but places second, will he feel blessed to have come so close or cursed to have narrowly missed a career bonanza? And if he has never won a major, will the regrets multiply over time, like credit-card interest?

“Anytime you’re in the mix come late Sunday of a major, it’s a great thing,” said Rory Sabbatini, who finished tied for second at the 2007 Masters with Retief Goosen and Woods.

Sabbatini, of South Africa, matched the closing 69 of the winner, Zach Johnson, and held the outright lead at one point on the final day.

“I was proud of the way I played,” said Sabbatini, whose best finish in a major since his tie for second has been a tie for 30th. “I don’t look at it any differently now than I did then. I look at it from the fact I’d love to be back and be there in that position again and give myself an opportunity again.”

How do you place a value on pride?

DiMarco cherishes the fact that he produced one of his finest rounds in the final round of the Masters while paired with one of the game’s legends.

“I made birdies down the stretch; I did everything I could to win the tournament, and I just got outchipped, so to speak,” DiMarco said.

His moxie catapulted him onto the editorial pages of a few newspapers, including The Austin American-Statesman, which wrote, “DiMarco didn’t win the green jacket, but for those who celebrate determination, spirit and class, the 36-year-old is a true winner.”

DiMarco, 46, is back at the Masters, but as a Golf Channel commentator, not as a competitor. Between morning television shifts, he said strangers still stopped him to talk about his duel with Woods.

“I’ve been congratulated more times for losing that tournament than I ever was for winning,” said DiMarco, a three-time PGA Tour champion.

Len Mattiace had a shorter celebrity shelf life. In the 2003 Masters, he lost in a playoff with Mike Weir. He finished roughly 40 minutes before Weir, and during that time he remembered being surrounded by people and cameras.

On the first extra hole, Mattiace hooked his approach, hit a bump-and-run onto the green and missed his next two putts. Weir won with a bogey and Mattiace was dispensed with like a pimento cheese sandwich wrapper. In an instant he went from being surrounded by people to having a single Augusta National member as his escort.

“It was very lonely and quiet,” Mattiace said in a telephone interview. “You don’t want to lose when you’re that close to winning.”

Mattiace’s closing 65 included an eagle at the par-5 No. 13. His second shot there, not his botched approach in the playoff, is the mental snapshot that he has carried with him since. In two pretournament trips to the course, he said, he had hit one bad approach after another on No. 13 using the same fairway wood, from roughly the same side-hill lie. To attempt the shot with a Masters jacket hanging in the balance, and to hit it within 10 feet of the hole, was immensely satisfying, he said.

“I still get goose bumps thinking about it,” Mattiace said. “That was an accomplishment. The acclaim, the fame, the fortune — that’s not why we play. We play to hit shots like that in moments like that.”

Mattiace has not played in the Masters since 2004. His two PGA Tour victories came before his near miss at Augusta National.

People talk about a Masters victory changing the winner’s life, and Mattiace and DiMarco can see, looking back, that it is true in respect to their careers. Both suffered injuries skiing in the months after their Masters star turns. Each said he returned to competition too soon because he did not feel as if he could afford to sit out if he wanted to retain his playing privileges.

The Masters winner receives a five-year tour exemption, and the guaranteed membership would have acted as a safety net for Mattiace and DiMarco when they were injured. In their haste to return to competitive golf, they essentially harmed their careers, their long-term success hampered by bad swing habits they developed to compensate for their pain and discomfort.

“If I had had the five-year exemption, I probably would have taken three, four months off in 2006,” DiMarco said. “In retrospect, I should not have played at Augusta that year because I wasn’t physically ready. I kept playing because I was worried that if I didn’t my world ranking would tumble, and that would impact my playing status.”

It is hard not to play the what-if game. For those who play their best on Sunday at Augusta National and get beat by somebody who is a little better on that day, it is infinitely easier.

“It is a great sense of accomplishment,” DiMarco said, “knowing that my nerves and everything held up.”

• Culled from The New York Times.