Countdown to the Ryder Cup: Chris DiMarco's passion play

With Italian blood coursing through his veins, America's key man Chris DiMarco has a fire in his belly ready to scorch the fairways
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The Independent Online

Every party needs its life and soul and if it was not already obvious who would provide both in Team Tom Lehman this week then it certainly was within the timespan of one wisecrack at Dublin Airport yesterday when they landed - tired and late - on a runway more suited to a chartered yacht than a chartered jet.

"Welcome To Our Backyard," read the giant sign as the captain of America led his Ryder Cup team down the aircraft's steps like a bunch of ducklings heading for their first dip. "Hey, nice water feature," piped up the joker as the 100-yard puddle guarding the terminal came into view. "I wouldn't mind that in my backyard."

Of course, being one of the 24 multi-millionaires competing in his biennial tear-up, Chris DiMarco must have a bigger one anyway in a Florida backyard that is more a back-hectare. But that was surely not the point. The point was that come rain or shine, DiMarco is going to stay upbeat these next six days. And, if he has anything to do with it, so too will the whole of America.

For if Lehman is determined to put the "united" into United States, then DiMarco will be his bonding agent. Throughout his 18-month build-up, Lehman has been unequivocal in the role he has set out for DiMarco, but then this is a leading character that Lehman's script has fortunately inherited rather than be forced to invent.

At Oakland Hills two years ago, DiMarco was the only figure of resistance to the European walkover, a truth signified by the original New Yorker having the only winning record in the 18½-9½ embarrassment. It might have escaped the majority in his homeland, but his was the only face rendered red by effort, not by shame.

At last September's Presidents Cup in Virginia, America finally appreciated what they had. The Masters had seen to it. A runner-up finish to Tiger Woods that redefined the term "gutsy" made DiMarco a cult hero and by the time the Rest of the World arrived with the fancy of doing to the golfing superpower what Europe had before, they knew what to expect and were not disappointed. Suddenly, the DiMarco fist-pumps that had drummed a sole beat in Detroit, were now conducting the passion of America's shirty dozen. It was his winning putt which exorcised the ghosts. The stone-cold certainties at last had a heart.

Speaking at the K Club on Lehman's unprecedented reconnaissance trip here three weeks ago, DiMarco opened up with the vigour that reveals why he is so important to Lehman. Daring to asking what fires him, is indeed like lighting the fuse before stepping away. "Look, I'm playing for my country and if you can't feel honoured playing for your country... well Jeez, " he barked. "You see, golfers don't get the opportunity to take part in the Olympics and the Ryder Cup is kind of what it is for us. We play in such an individual sport for 51 weeks of the year and then we come together. Gee, it's so special to have team-mates."

If only the rest of them felt the same: Tiger for one, who is to team-matery what he is to back-markery. "That's bull," said DiMarco putting a rather colourful twist on what has become the American team's stock answer to any query of the world No 1's commitment. "This [Ryder Cup] means the same to everybody; to Tiger, Phil [Mickelson], Jim [Furyk], Zach [Johnson], whoever. Believe me, there will be 12 guys out there with a whole lot of passion. I'll just happen to show it a little bit more. I don't know if that is the Italian in me, but it's just the way I was brought up. I had two older brothers who were always beating me up and I always felt I had to get my two cents in. I owe those two a lot for the way I am."

Indeed, to understand DiMarco is to understand the DiMarco boys. Rarely have siblings been so close, well not this side of Bethnal Green anyhow. His closeness to Mitch and Rick always dictated that he would follow them to Florida University, although there was obviously a moment when the kid, himself, realised. "I went to a football game there when I was 12 years old," he said. "There was a guy in Mitch's fraternity section who was being obnoxious. Mitch went over and took care of him and that's when I said, 'this is the school for me'."

It still is, just as it is for his 46-year-old and 42-year-old brothers. When Chris's schedule allows it, they always go there together, supporting the college's gridiron team, the Gators, and it is there where DiMarco's attitude to team sports is perhaps best emphasised. "I'm better than I used to be, but I'm still loud - pretty rowdy, actually," he admitted. "My brothers and I, plus friends, food and beverages. If it's a 3pm game, we're there at noon. We've a few confrontations with fans from other schools."

If that makes one think of DiMarco as Vinnie Jones with a five-iron (not a nice thought) then that is because it is not the worst analogy. There is something of the former hod-carrier to the 38-year-old who recalls with trademark humour his days struggling below golf's Premiership. "I was playing with a guy called Pete Jordan, together with Bob Burns, maybe a decade ago," said DiMarco. "And Jordan labelled us 'the hot-dog threesome'. It sounded pretty neat, pretty grand, so I asked him what he meant. 'Well,' said Pete, if you're a spectator and you're looking at the starting sheet and you see that next on the green is Jordan, Burns and DiMarco you say to your pal 'hey, let's go get a hotdog'."

It is difficult to imagine, Woods, Mickelson or even Furyk and David Toms recounting such a self-effacing tale, but then they have not been where DiMarco has been. In those dark mid-90s, the former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year actually came close to giving it all up. "I was at a mini-tour event at Disney World and I was very frustrated. I'd lost my card and was thinking of doing something else in golf, teaching or whatever. My ball-striking had actually gotten worse than my putting, if that was possible. But then there was a rain delay and I was on the putting green when Skip Kendall came up. He suggested I try right-hand open, palm down: The Claw. 'What is that crazy thing?' I thought. But I tried it, and what's amazing is the change was almost instant. I went from shooting 74s to 65s immediately."

Fast forward to a new century and here is the new golfer, blessed with the same burning conviction that radiates through his eyes, but also with the game to justify such desire. The paradox of DiMarco, now established in the world's top 20, is that he has not won in America for more than half a decade. There have been many seconds, though, most famously his two back-to-back play-off defeats in the 2004 USPGA Championship and the 2005 Masters and another bridesmaid spot behind Woods at The Open two months ago.

So to suggest DiMarco is not a winner is a foolish thing for any European to do, especially in this of all weeks. "Something happens to me under that flag," he says. A star without any need to prove his stripes.

Driving force: The career of Chris DiMarco

* BACKGROUND Birthplace Huntington, New York

Age 38

Turned professional in 1990.

Married to Amy and has three children: Christian, Elizabeth and Brooke.

* MAJOR MAJORS The Masters 2nd in 2005

US Open Tied 9th in 2004

The Open 2nd in 2006

PGA Championship Tied 2nd in 2004

* OTHER TOURNAMENT HIGHLIGHTS Ryder Cup in 2004 (Eighth in Cup points)

Presidents Cup in 2003 and 2005 (US Team Winners)

Abu Dhabi Championship Winner in 2006

* PGA TOUR WINS SEI Pennsylvania Classic 2000

Buick Challenge 2001

Phoenix Open 2002

* WORLD RANKING Ranking 15th

Total number of events 52

* CAREER EARNINGS Total in 2006 $1,420,127 (£754,023)

Overall $19,685,268 (£10,451,984)

Money List ranking 45th