Son Aiding the Father

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ChildrenLAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Cristian DiMarco remembers bobbing and weaving along the ropes to get a glimpse through the gallery of his father’s dramatic final-round duel against Tiger Woods at the Masters five years ago.

He was 9 back then and busting with pride. He'll never forget racing to see his father answer so many of Woods’ best shots as the duel pushed into a playoff.

“It was very emotional,” Cristian says today.

Chris DiMarco
Chris DiMarco and son Cristian at the 2005 Masters Tournament. (Getty Images)
Chris DiMarco didn’t win that Masters, but he was at the height of his powers. His game was never closer to taking him to golf’s pinnacle, to winning major championships. DiMarco’s finish at Augusta National gave him back-to-back second-place finishes in majors. The three-time PGA Tour winner would finish runner-up in yet another major at the 2006 British Open, giving him three second-place finishes in majors over three years.

After fighting his way back from injuries, and the damage they did to his swing over two seasons, DiMarco’s beginning to feel the momentum changing in his game. He will tee it up Thursday at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney World looking to take a meaningful step in a return to form. He’ll do it with some special help on his bag.

Cristian, 14, will caddie for his father in an event that’s strengthened their bond to the game. It's played practically in their backyard with the family's home in suburban Orlando.

Chris and Cristian began playing Disney’s parent-child tournament when Cristian was 3 years old. They’ve won it eight times in the nine years they’ve played.

“The Tripletts beat us that one year,” Cristian said Wednesday watching his father hit golf balls on the range at Disney. “We weren’t too happy about that.”

DiMarco has some pretty good mojo with family on his bag. When he beat David Duval in a playoff to win the Buick Challenge in 2001, his brother, Mitch, was his caddie. When DiMarco won the Abu Dhabi Championship on the European Tour in 2006, his wife, Amy, was his caddie. Half of DiMarco’s four worldwide titles have come with family toting his bag.

“I don’t know what it is,” said DiMarco, 42. “When it’s family on the bag, I’m the one making the decisions. I don’t have a caddie to blame. Maybe I think better.”

DiMarco says he’s inspired with his son at his side. Cristian caddied one other time for him in a PGA Tour event, at the Reno-Tahoe Open in July. DiMarco tied for 10th, his best finish this season.

“Cristian knows my swing and my game,” Chris said. “He has no problem saying, 'Hey, dad, you’re aiming 30 yards right.’ He has no problem saying that in the middle of a round. Sometimes, a regular caddie won’t take that on.”

Cristian is a freshman who helped Lake Mary Prep win its district playoffs this fall. Unlike his father, he's a lefty who plays to a 4-handicap.

With that Reno-Tahoe finish, Cristian got a nice cut of the week’s paycheck as part of his caddie deal.

“He made $3,700,” Chris said. “We put it on a Visa Bucks card. So we had a 14-year-old walking around with $3,700.”

Three months later, Cristian still hasn’t spent it.

“I’m saving it,” he said.

Dad steps off a ball on the range hearing that and beams.

“He’s 15 months away from being able to drive a car,” DiMarco says. “Maybe he can get himself a nice radio for his first car.”

This week’s first-place check is worth $846,000. If DiMarco wins, Cristian will split the standard 10-percent caddie share with DiMarco’s regular caddie. That means if Papa DiMarco chalks up his fourth PGA Tour title, Cristian will walk away with $42,300 as his paycheck.

“He could buy his own car with that,” DiMarco said.

The first-place check would go a long way for dad, too, in the year’s final PGA Tour event.

DiMarco is 165th on the PGA Tour money list. He needs to win or finish second to crack the top 125 on the money list and earn fully exempt status for next year. He’s signed up for PGA Tour Q-School, just in case.

If DiMarco finishes among the top 150 on the final money list, he could play next year on conditional status, as he’s doing this year. But with a top-150 finish, he’s also exempt into the final stage of Q-School. A finish outside the top 150 means he would have to earn his way to finals through a second-stage Q-School event.

DiMarco has a pretty good backup plan. While he used a top-25 career money exemption to play in 2009, he still has a top-50 career money exemption he can use to play next year.

“If I play well enough to get into the top 150 in money and can go directly to the final stage, I will probably go to Q-School,” DiMarco said. “If I have to go to second stage, I probably won’t.

“With the top-50 career money exemption, I’m fortunate. It’s like I’ve got nothing to lose this week. I can be aggressive and try to make a lot of birdies.”

DiMarco got himself in this position after injuring his ribs in a skiing accident four years ago. The injury led to a chain-reaction of events within his body. He began compensating to protect injured parts, and he ended up with bone spurs in his left shoulder. He had shoulder surgery in September of ’07 and has been battling his way back ever since.

“I tried to come back right away,” DiMarco said. “But I didn’t have the flexibility.

“You end up losing a lot of confidence and questioning your own ability. That’s what happened to me. And there’s no doubt wanting to get back to where I was probably hurt me because you want it so badly that you push too much. You play your best when you relax and let it come. That’s what I need to get back to doing. ”

Though DiMarco hasn’t won as much money as he’s needed, he said he likes the improving state of his game. He arrives at Disney having made 13 consecutive cuts. His ball striking’s coming back. His putting, too. And so is his confidence.

“I’ve been slower coming back than I would have liked, but I’m coming back,” DiMarco said.