Few golfers could go toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods when he was in his Noughties pomp – but one man who had him on the ropes on more than one occasion was the indomitable Chris DiMarco.
There have been many great major duels over the years, from Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson’s iconic denouement in The 106th Open to Nick Faldo reeling in Greg Norman at The Masters in 1996.
And in the mid-2000s, when Woods was setting new standards of golfing brilliance, he found himself a sparring partner of his own in the shape of the native New Yorker.
DiMarco said: “Tiger Woods never intimidated me. I was never scared of him.
“I knew he was better than me. I think people have this false exaggeration that they’re as good as Tiger. But when he was playing his best golf there was nobody as good as Tiger. Physically he had shots I could not hit. His focus level was ridiculous. But on any given day could I beat him? Absolutely.
“People like me, Bob May, Rocco Mediate, we were always the underdog. The pressure was more on Tiger because he was supposed to win.
“Playing in the big tournaments against Tiger Woods; that’s what you want to do. You want to prove you can handle it when everything is on the line, on the biggest days at the biggest venues, and I got to do that a few times so I’m pretty lucky.”
DiMarco and Woods first tangled at Augusta in 2005 with the latter eventually winning a sudden-death play-off to collect his fourth Green Jacket.
Then came an emotional reunion at the 135th Open at Royal Liverpool the following year.
Woods’s father Earl died of a heart attack in May 2006 while DiMarco lost his beloved mother Norma, also to a heart attack, on 4 July. The tragedies pushed the Ryder Cup team-mates closer together, even if it was a bond neither would have wanted.
DiMarco said: “I guess I played with a lot of peace that week. Obviously there was so much going on.
“I wasn’t going to play in The Open at all but I talked to my brothers and they suggested I take a buddy with me so I took my son Cristian, who was 10 at the time, and my dad. It was great for my dad because his mind could be on something else and he could have a great time with Cristian and really get into the golf.
“There was definitely some divine intervention at play because my scorer’s name on the Sunday was Norma so I knew I was gonna play good.
“I went over to my dad and said ‘you’re not gonna believe this…’ and we both cried a bit and had some goosebumps, but I knew she was with me the whole day.
“In terms of being at peace with myself, that was probably the best round I ever played.”
Despite the turmoil in their personal lives, the American duo registered solid opening rounds at Hoylake with Woods finishing a shot behind first-round leader Graeme McDowell and DiMarco just four back.
A pair of 65s on a blisteringly hot Friday set up a tantalising weekend with Ernie Els, Sergio García and Jim Furyk also in the hunt.
Woods led going into the Sunday and began his final round with four straight pars. DiMarco wobbled early, bogeying the first hole, but a birdie on 6 allowed him to cut the lead to just one, only for Woods to eagle the 5th and regain control.
But DiMarco, who was still regaining full fitness following a skiing accident, refused to relent, draining a par-saving 60ft putt on 14 before birdieing 16 and 18 to once again test Woods’s resolve.
The then-10-time major winner was equal to it, birdieing three in a row from the 14th to finish with an aggregate of 270 and win by two.
DiMarco said: “I remember everything about that final day, I really do. That was a fun, fun round of golf. It’s always fun to be in the mix in the biggest tournaments we play all year.
“I putted pretty good that week, one of the better putting weeks I’ve had.
“Tiger was fantastic during the [winner’s] speech. He talked about the fact that we both played with heavy hearts that week.
“When he came off the 18th and into the tent we had a little embrace and shed a tear for my mum and his dad. That was one of the things that pushed us together and we had a little bit of a bond.”
DiMarco, who lost a PGA Championship play-off to Vijay Singh in 2004, is one of only two golfers to finish runner-up to Woods in a major more than once; the other being Els.
Although he never got over the line on the biggest days, DiMarco did win three times on the PGA Tour and was a key member of USA Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams.
But those achievements, and his tenacious tussles with Tiger, would have seemed totally unattainable back in 1995 when his putting “went south”, until a chance meeting with fellow PGA Tour pro – and would-be coach – Skip Kendall changed the course of DiMarco’s career.
He explained: “I finished 80th on the money list in my rookie year on the Tour. But in 1995 I didn’t finish in the top 150 so I didn’t keep my card. Back then it was a case of going back to Tour school.
“I was at an event in Porto Vista in Florida and we had a rain delay. I saw Skip there and he asked me what I was going to do next year and I said ‘I think I’m done’. It’s no fun to play golf when you don’t feel like you can make a two-foot putt. It was totally a nerve thing, totally a ‘yippy’ thing.
“And then he showed me this ‘claw’ putting grip. I looked at him like he was nuts.
“The next day I had a putt where I knew there was no chance I was going to hit the hole, so I decided to give the claw a shot, and it was like I was 12 years old again. The stroke felt unbelievable. There was no hitching it, no nerves in it, it was just a normal stroke.
“Before that, I’d hit 16, 17 greens a round, I’d have ten putts inside 12 feet and I’d shoot 72, 73 with 36 or 37 putts. It was ugly. But I went from shooting 72, 73 to shooting 64, 65 almost overnight. With that comes a surge of confidence.
“Then I qualified for Doral, I qualified for the Honda Classic and I qualified for Atlanta – and made the cut in two of them. I had one more year on the Nike Tour and finished third on the money list. And I was able to keep my Tour card from 1998 to about 2013.
“There is no doubt that if the claw putting grip never came around, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The first of DiMarco’s eight Open appearances came at St Andrews in 2000 when he missed the cut, leaving him far from enamoured with the test posed at the home of golf.
He said: “I couldn’t understand why people liked this golf course so much. I played badly because I had a bad attitude with it.”
He made the weekend four times in the next five years before his runner-up finish at Royal Liverpool. And while he had a difficult debut, he eventually fell in love with golf’s original Championship.
DiMarco said: “What you get at The Open with the weather, the fans… it’s just the complete experience.
“We don’t play that kind of golf in the States. It’s a different ball game. You just can’t miss greens on those links courses. If you do, you could end up anywhere, especially in those bunkers. If you stay out of the bunkers and avoid the run-offs on the greens you can play good golf.”
He continued: “All four seasons of the year can happen in one round and you’ve got to be prepared for that. But if you put your mind in the moment it’s easier to deal with the elements and easier to deal with a bad break. You can get some weird bounces over there. You just have to be prepared to take it all in and keep your mind strong.
“It’s different golf but I enjoy The Open Championship, I really do. A lot of the guys don’t want to travel that far but if you’re exempt for that, or any major, you just gotta play.”