Chris DiMarco'S entourage showed up for the first round of the Verizon Byron Nelson Classic last month just as DiMarco was walking off the 10th green at Cottonwood Valley. "I started off double bogey, par, bogey," DiMarco said to his wife, Amy. "How late did the kids sleep?"
"Nine o'clock," said Amy, his entourage of one.
"Wow! They slept till nine?"
Welcome to DiMarco Island, where there's no swing coach, no sports psychologist, no Pilates instructor and, trust us, no dietician. DiMarco would need a name tag if he ever showed up in the Tour's fitness trailer. The closest thing to trendy in DiMarco's life is his wardrobe, which is rich in earth tones and pleats. It is tempting to describe DiMarco as retro, but that connotes a conscious effort to read the grain and roll his career against it. The fact is, the 33-year-old DiMarco is merely well-grounded. He believes in Amy, whom he has known since junior high. He believes in the Florida Gators' football team, to which his devotion is unequivocal. He believes in the Pings in his bag, the brand he has played since his sophomore year with the Gators, and he believes in his swing, the basics of which have not changed since die first time he hit the ball as a seven-year-old in Orlando. "A coach? Never have had one," DiMarco says. "Dad put the club in my hand, and my swing is not that much different now. I'm a feel player. I know what I need to do to play well."
His approach is simple and, judging by the results, effective. In a stretch of 13 tournaments, from last August through February, he won twice, at the Buick Challenge in October and at the Phoenix Open in January, and he had six other top 10 finishes. This year he's seventh on the money list, with $1,675,902. Over the last 14 months DiMarco has made the cut in 31 of 32 starts.
Now DiMarco is looking forward to bigger game, playing Bethpage Black. He feels a connection to the place because he was born in Huntington, N.Y., 15 miles away. (His family moved to Orlando when he was seven.) With his laser iron approaches and deft short game, DiMarco has proved himself capable in major championships. In nine majors he has finished 16th or better five times. At the 2001 Masters, his first appearance at Augusta, he led after each of the first two rounds and remained among the contenders well into the final round. Then he got anxious and, in his words, too quick: He tied for 10th, eight strokes behind Tiger Woods. "I like the major atmosphere a lot," DiMarco says. "You know par is a good score. You don't have to worry about shooting 62."
Most of all, DiMarco believes in himself. Professional athletes are fierce competitors, but even in that company, DiMarco's confidence stands out. In an age when the range is filled with grinders, DiMarco refuses to follow the crowd. "Chris knows who he is and what his life is about," says Florida coach Buddy Alexander, who took over die Gators in 1987, when DiMarco was a sophomore. The two remain close. "We get guys who don't like to work out. We get guys who don't care about what they eat. We get guys who don't like to practice. It's pretty unusual to get one who fits all three categories and who can really play. Chris simply wanted to play. He wanted to tee it up and beat somebody."
Alexander would have range days, during which he had his players work on the parts of their game that needed it most. DiMarco, Alexander says, would hit about 25 balls before he would begin walking up and down the range looking for a game. In that regard DiMarco hasn't changed. His brother Rick caddied for him at this year's Masters when Chris's regular caddie, Pat O'Bryan, took ill. "Chris told me, 'Meet me in front of the clubhouse 35 minutes before tee time,' " says Rick, a 38-year-old banker in Orlando. "He hit 10 or 12 balls, then said, 'Give me three [balls] to putt,' and left the range. He's always been self-sufficient. You see Vijay Singh on the range for four hours. If Chris tried to work like that, he would mess himself up."
A couple of years ago DiMarco considered hiring a sports psychologist. He met with Joel Fish over dinner two nights before the first round of the 2000 SEI Classic. DiMarco unburdened himself of the feelings he has had when he's inside the ropes, then went out and won his first PGA Tour event, by six strokes. He accepts the idea of using someone as a sounding board, but that's it. "I don't think somebody who hasn't been there could give me advice about how to react to standing over a five-footer with everything on the line," DiMarco says. Says Fish, "He has an excellent ability to monitor his emotional thermostat and adapt it to what he needs. That's the key to golf."
DiMarco developed his competitive drive as the youngest of Richard and Norma's three boys. Chris relishes the memory of playing football as a kid with Rick and Mitch, who's now 41. The older boys would get on their knees in die living room, and Chris would try to burst through them. "He would run full blast, and we would pick him up and drop him on the floor, hit him hard," Rick says. Chris beams as he retells the story. "I never, ever, gave them the satisfaction of seeing me cry," he says. "When your brothers are eight and five years older than you are, their paying attention to you is all you really care about."