Tiger’s mind more on dad than Augusta changes


AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – The first tee shot of a crisp Tuesday morning sailed against a sunlit sky and disappeared into a bunker.

Tiger Woods’ next effort wasn’t much better.

He hit a pull-hook that took one hop before smacking into the trunk of a Georgia pine and landing in the second cut of rough. It was more of the same on the second hole, one drive clattering into the trees on the left, another drive sailing into the woods on the right.

Augusta National is tougher than ever, and it has Woods’ attention.

Leaving the golf course can be even more taxing.

For all the changes this year at the Masters, perhaps the biggest facing Woods is that his father is not here for the first time.

Earl Woods is too weak to travel. The cancer that returned in 2004 and spread throughout his body has taken such a toll that Woods flew across the country to California the day before The Players Championship to check on his father.

Woods returned to Sawgrass and tied for 22nd, although that was more a result of poor iron play and substandard putting.

One trait he inherited from his father is a strong mind.

“I’ve been dealing with it for years, so nothing has changed,” Woods said of his father’s health. “It is what it is, and you just deal with it. Everyone who has had a family member who lived that long, you’re going to deal with it sometime. Unfortunately, it’s our time now. But as far as being a distraction, no. I had plenty of time to focus on each and every shot. I just hit poor shots and putted terrible.”

Even so, the Masters has always been a family affair.

Earl Woods had heart bypass surgery during the 96 Tour Championship and nearly died before doctors revived him. There were complications from surgery, and he wasn’t supposed to travel that next April to Augusta for his son’s professional debut in a major.

But the father was at the Masters in 1997, and even gave Woods a putting lesson.

“I putted great,” Woods said with a smile.

Woods didn’t have a three-putt that week, shattered scoring records to win by 12 shots in a watershed moment in golf, then walked off the 18th green and into the arms of his father, melting in tears.

“This has been a very special week for us as a family,” Woods said.

Last year, Earl Woods managed to travel to Augusta, but was in no shape to go to the golf course. He watched on television as his son chipped in for birdie on the 16th, went bogey-bogey to blow a two-shot lead, then regrouped with his best two shots of the week to set up a 15-foot birdie for the victory.

And then he broke down on the 18th green, noting that “Pops” was unable to see him win.

No one will really know how heavy this weighs on Woods as he plays the first major of the year. He has been mediocre his last two starts at Bay Hill and Sawgrass, but he won at Torrey Pines and Doral.

Asked to describe his father’s condition, Woods replied, “Fighting.”

“When you’re away from the course, obviously things are a little bit different,” Woods said. “But when you’re at the course, you’re playing, you’re grinding. Today, I’m preparing. I have enough on my mind out there trying to place my shots, and what angles I need to have, or where I need to be for certain pins, and stuff like that.”

He knows that he likely will remove a head cover before taking on the par-3 fourth, one of the six changes to Augusta National, and one that is getting a lot of attention this week. Woods hit a 5-wood during practice Tuesday that covered the flag and stopped about 12 feet behind the hole. The other day, with wind in his face, he hit a 3-wood.

Phil Mickelson has a new weapon – two of them, actually – planning to keep two drivers in his bag, just as he did last week at the BellSouth Classic when he won by 13 shots.

Colin Montgomerie had a typical reaction to the lengthening at No. 11, a 505-yard hole that plays as a par 4.

“Holes that start with 5 and it says par 4 are generally the problem,” he said.

And then there’s two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who dismissed any criticism or hysteria with an adage that works anywhere in golf.

“There’s a few mixed feelings out there,” he said. “But at the end of the day, everybody is playing the same course.”

Still, some players might have an easier time than others based on length alone.

Jack Nicklaus is among those who believe only a dozen or so players have a realistic chance of contending on a course that now measures 7,445 yards, making it the second-longest in a major championship behind Whistling Straits (7,514 yards) in the 2004 PGA Championship. And considering only 91 players are in the field – including Gary Player and Charles Coody – the odds are even better than at most majors.

Chris DiMarco has played in the final group the last two years, a hard-luck loser to Woods in the playoff. He has good vibes at the Masters, and described the course as one that fits his eye.

“Although it’s getting harder to see,” he added, “as far as the pins are getting away from me.”

Woods is the favorite as usual.

The unknown is not a player, but the weather. Augusta National has been rain-softened since the first series of changes in 2002, so no one is quite sure what to expect if it becomes the firm, fast test that the club desires.

“I think we just hold back and see where it goes, see how we play the game on this new Augusta National,” Ernie Els said.

AP-ES-04-04-06 1821EDT