CHRIS DIMARCO IS THROWING golf balls on the practice range of Pinehurst No. 2 on Monday. He is trying to hit a small pane of glass stamped with a PGA of America logo that is perched on a metal stand about 30 yards away.
The object of this part of the skills challenge is to hit a low bullet-like shot that shatters the glass. (Maybe you’ve seen this stunt on the Golf Channel.) Fellow tour pros Natalie Gulbis and Zach Johnson break the glass. Gulbis succeeds in four or five tries; Johnson on his second attempt.
Chris can only come close. Now he is heaving golf balls in mock frustration until he finally hits the mark. Maybe it’s a small glimpse into the fiery competitive personality DiMarco is known for.
I admit I hadn’t thought lately about DiMarco, a top PGA Tour player a few years ago who battled Tiger Woods at the 2005 Masters, finished second in the British Open and sunk a Presidents Cup-clinching putt.
What happened to him?
The McGladrey Team Championship is more than a corporate outing. It’s a national amateur tournament sponsored by RSM McGladrey and conducted by the PGA of America. The finals are at Pinehurst, considered by many as the home of American golf and a steward of golf tradition.
I use outing in a generic sense, an opportunity and obligation for a tour professional. While the caddie’s credo is “show up, keep up and shut up,” the tour pro’s outing credo could be “show up, keep up and talk it up.” Plus smile a lot. Outings are a perpetual photo op.
I’m at Pinehurst feeling a bit like the boy who climbed the country club fence and sneaked onto the grounds to witness what goes on there. I’m not an outing crasher, though. I’m an invited guest. I observe the seemingly odd intersection of corporate sponsor, famous golf resort, professional golf association, amateur competitors and tour professionals. This is a side of golf not visible on cable and network television.
The tour pros—Gulbis, Johnson and DiMarco—are here to smile for every photo, shake every hand and sign every autograph. They’re here to raise money for Special Olympics, the official charity, and talk about the team concept of their common sponsor, RSM McGladrey, a national accounting and tax firm. And they’re here to congratulate and mingle with the amateur golfers who have played their way to Pinehurst. There’s a lot to do in one day, including media, so they’re on a tight schedule.
DiMarco flew in on a red-eye from Phoenix, where he played in the Frys.com Open. He arrived in Charlotte at 6 a.m. and shuttled 100 miles east to Pinehurst. After breakfast and interviews, he walks to the practice range for the skills challenge. Maybe the brisk weather will keep him awake and alert after his all-night cross-country flight.
Forty-five minutes later Chris is winding up and throwing golf balls. He shows up and keeps up. I also remember that he never gives up.
In 2005, DiMarco was ranked 10th in the world. In 2006—the year he finished second to Tiger in the British Open—he was still in the top 20. But in March of that year he noticed a pop in his right shoulder. Something was wrong. He played with it for the remainder of 2006 and the 2007 season. Meanwhile, his game went south.
“Six times a round, I’d pull it left when I didn’t mean to,” he told the Orange County Register earlier this year.
After surgery two years ago, Chris is now trying to hang on to his PGA Tour card. Once a mainstay in the top 20 on the PGA Tour money list, he is currently 138th, just outside the top 125 who enjoy exempt status. It’s why he’s playing in the Fall Series and took a red-eye from the Frys.com Open, where he shot four rounds in the 60s but made up no ground on the money list.
I walk to the 1st tee of Pinehurst No. 8 where DiMarco is stationed to greet amateur players. My hosts tell me I can grab a few minutes with him in between groups, photos and autographs. I have my questions and tiny voice recorder at the ready.
The groups clear out and it’s just Chris, the co-host of Chris’s radio show (called oPINionated with Chris DiMarco), a producer and me standing beside the 1st tee. The co-host says we have two short segments to record for an upcoming show. Let’s bang it out, Chris replies. I listen as the host asks many of the questions on my list.
Chris then turns to me. My questions and recorder seem pointless. I shove them into my pocket and reach out to shake his hand. We walk up the hill toward the clubhouse.
Chris tells me his shoulder is good. It’s good to feel healthy again, he adds.
It sounds like your game is coming back, I say.
He tells me he is hitting it well and just needs to make more putts. There’s determination in his voice. He will play the last two events on the schedule, this week’s Viking Classic in Madison, Mississippi, and the Children’s Miracle Network Classic in Orlando.
What about your status? I ask.
If he doesn’t make it into the top 125, Chris tells me he could use a one-time top 50 in career earnings exemption but would rather save it. Instead, he says he’ll probably rely on his top 150 money list finish, which will get him into 15 to 18 PGA Tour events in 2010.
I wish him luck and tell him it doesn’t seem that long ago that he was in a playoff with Tiger at the Masters. He nods, thanks me, and heads off to the next thing on the schedule. The fire is still there. I hope he makes it back.
−The Armchair Golfer
Q&A: Natalie Gulbis at Pinehurst