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On sunday evening at the 18th hole of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course in Gainesville, Va., Chris DiMarco stood over a putt that could win the Presidents Cup. The PGA Tour's ShotLink lasers measured it at exactly 14 feet, four inches. The emotion riding on it was incalculable. � There were no rookies on this U.S. team. The core group of top Americans has endured the humiliation and aggravation of not having won a Ryder Cup since 1999 or a Presidents Cup since 2000. DiMarco was the only American with a winning record at last year's Ryder Cup, and he said last week that he still wakes up hearing "Ol�! Ol�! Ol�!"--the lyrical chant of the European boosters. � But for DiMarco the putt for the Presidents Cup was about not only beating the other guys but also winning one for Jack
Nicklaus, a nonwinner in two previous stints as captain who was winding down an emotional year during which he bid adieu to the Masters and the British Open. Yet Nicklaus's greatest sadness had nothing to do with golf: In March his 17-month-old grandson, Jake, drowned in a hot tub. At a team dinner last week the players presented Captain Jack with a painting of Jake to be hung in the newly dedicated Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Palm Beach, Fla. "It's the sweetest thing that's ever been done for me," Nicklaus said. "I was crying like a baby. Half the team was in tears. It was wonderful." The emotion of the night further galvanized an already close team.
So those slippery 14 feet, four inches were for Nicklaus and for DiMarco's loyal teammates--to say nothing of God and country--but they were for DiMarco too. As he looked over his putt, he flashed back to this year's Masters, at which he made a do-or-die six-footer on the final hole that forced a playoff with Tiger Woods. That ended in disappointment, as have so many other tournaments for DiMarco, who, amazingly, hasn't won since 2002. This Presidents Cup had already been a career-defining performance--he had gone a team-best 3-0-1 in foursomes and four-balls--but now he had the chance to add the exclamation point. It was not an accident that DiMarco was deciding the Cup in the final singles match. Says U.S. assistant captain Jeff Sluman, "Nobody understands the psychology of a golfer better than Captain Nicklaus. He wanted Chris there at the end."
DiMarco was not feeling so bulletproof. "I was so nervous I thought I might whiff," he said. In situations like that he has a mental trick: "I think about my children. It takes me out of the moment." So before stepping to his ball, DiMarco pictured his nine-year-old son, Cristian, running up and giving him a fist pump. He imagined his six-year-old daughter, Amanda, doing one of her silly dances. And in his mind he heard his 20-month-old daughter, Abigale, saying, "Love you, Dad-deee."
DiMarco made a perfect stroke, and the putt was so pure that he began celebrating before the ball fell into the cup. In the ensuing bedlam a hoarse Justin Leonard said, "This is right up there with anything I've experienced." This from a British Open champ who was the hero of the 1999 Ryder Cup, one of the most intense sporting events of all time.
The final margin of a nail-biting week would be U.S. 18 1/2, Internationals 15 1/2. In the end DiMarco's putt was not for his kids or his captain but something larger. The Presidents Cup has always lacked a singular moment to help carve out its place in the sports firmament. Until now the most memorable things about it had been a cap embroidered tiger who? and a handshake in the dark between two captains, Nicklaus and Gary Player, who had just torn up the rule book and invented an awkward tie. Now there is DiMarco's walk-off birdie, capping not only a thrilling week of action but also perhaps signaling a resurgence of American golf. "The competition and the sportsmanship is good for the game," said Davis Love III. "Winning is good for us."
It was a fitting tribute to team play that on a squad stocked with superstars the heroes were a pair of grinders, DiMarco and Jim Furyk. The former has a funny putting grip and the latter a zany swing, but they performed superbly while also inspiring the U.S.'s enigmatic megatalents, Woods and Phil Mickelson, whose indifferent play and bad mojo went a long way toward sinking the last Ryder Cup team.
Woods's turnaround week did not begin auspiciously. He came in 10-17-1 in partner play in seven Ryder and Presidents Cups, having been thrown together with 14 teammates in a desperate attempt to find someone, anyone, who could break through his lone-wolf intensity. During last Thursday's foursomes Fred Couples was not that guy. The 45-year-old captain's pick's ball striking was inconsistent and his putting shaky, and he and Woods were run over 4 and 3 by Retief Goosen and Adam Scott, who would go 3-0-1 as a pair.
Mickelson picked up the slack with spirited play that was inspired in large part by the fist-pumping enthusiasm of his partner, DiMarco. Mickelson had come into the week on a six-match losing streak at the Presidents Cup, having been defeated in singles in 2000 and skunked in five matches in '03. During a dinner early in the week Nicklaus was not shy about needling the woebegone lefthander. Says Mickelson, " Captain Nicklaus said all we need is a half point more than last time, and he kind of looked at me and said, 'You just have to tie one match--man, c'mon!'"
DiMarco is so much shorter and straighter than Mickelson that Nicklaus didn't think their games would mesh, but the captain says he was "overruled" by the team on the pairing. Fred Funk explained, "Chris is such a go-get-'em, in-your-face guy.... He almost deflects attention from Phil and lets Phil relax a little."