RENO, Nevada – If Chris DiMarco keeps playing like this, his 14-year-old son may have landed a permanent job as his caddie.
The three-time winner on the PGA Tour who hasn’t finished in the top-10 since 2008 shot a 5-under-par 67 with Cristian DiMarco on his bag for the first time at the Reno-Tahoe Open on Thursday, good enough to be a stroke behind first-round leader Matt Bettencourt.
Will MacKenzie, the 2006 Reno champ, and Craig Bowden were two shots off the pace with 68 at Montreux Golf & Country Club on the edge of the Sierra Nevada. A group of more than a dozen golfers at 69 included Steve Elkington, Woody Austin, Mark Hensby, J.J. Henry and former UNLV star Chad Campbell.
DiMarco’s son helped read the tricky mountain greens and even called him off of using his driver when the 2-iron proved to be the perfect choice on the 464-yard, tree-lined No. 8 that drops 138 feet from an elevated tee.
“It’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever done on a golf course having my son there sitting right next to me making birdies and playing well,” said DiMarco, 41, who has made 10 of 15 cuts this year but only had one top-25 finish and barely $200,000 in earnings. “He’s a 3 or 4 handicap himself, so he can read greens.”
Bettencourt, who won the 2008 Nationwide Tour Championship but has no PGA wins, hit his drive 355 yards on the par-5 17th, knocked a 4-iron 260 yards to within 3 feet and made the eagle before bogeying No. 18.
The 35-year-old Northern California native said he probably played nearly 100 rounds of golf in the neighboring Reno area while growing up, including a couple dozen trips to Montreux the past decade.
“My confidence is building. I feel real comfortable,” he said. “I feel really acclimated to the elevation.”
“The whole game is about confidence. I think that’s what Tiger (Woods) has bred so well over his career. I mean, he’s so much more confident than everybody else. We all believe in ourselves. You know, it’s just the matter of getting on a hot streak.”
DiMarco, who birdied the last three holes in his bogey-free round Thursday, has earned more than $20 million in his 16 years on tour. A former member of the U.S. Ryder and Presidents cup teams, his best year was 2005 when he finished seventh on the money list and lost the Masters by two strokes to Woods in a playoff.
He also was the runner-up to Woods in the 2006 British Open, but ended that season early to have surgery on his left shoulder and has been working his way back since. His last PGA win was the 2002 Phoenix Open.
“Obviously, I think I can still win out here,” DiMarco said. “My confidence is slowly but surely coming back. I’m starting to get comfortable on the golf course again.”
That might have something to do with the help on the home front, which he solicited this week after giving his regular caddie a break. He said he won on the European Tour at Abu Dhabi in 2006 with his wife, Amy, on the bag and the 2001 Buick Challenge with his brother, Mitch, caddying.
“I have had a lot of success with family on the bag,” he said. “I don’t know if it relaxes me, if it makes me more comfortable, whatever it is.”
John Rollins, the defending champ who matched the course record with a 62 in last year’s second round, shot a 71 on Thursday but “played a lot better than I scored.”
“Last year on Friday I had a great round, so hopefully the golf gods will be the same with me tomorrow,” he said.
MacKenzie also felt he should have scored better, making only one putt outside 10 feet.
“I’ve been playing like crud this year,” said MacKenzie, who has missed six of 13 cuts with his best finish a tie for 12th at the Honda Classic. “I need to shoot a low one to get my confidence back.”
MacKenzie lost his ball in the sage brush and took double bogey when his drive hit a tree on the 518-yard, par-5, No. 4, often a birdie opportunity.
“There’s two spotters over there and we all look voraciously for 5 minutes – if that’s a word – and couldn’t find it,” he said. “It was not even that bad of sage over there. I was really amazed that we lost that ball. It was a bummer.”