- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The last time Tiger Woods took the tee at Augusta National with his adored ‘Pops’ gravely ill, he simply authored the most sport-defining watershed major victory since caddie Francis Ouimet fashioned the transatlantic takedown, otherwise known as the 1913 U.S. Open.

In 1997, a 21-year-old Woods showed up at the Masters just two weeks after his father had a heart attack and a pair of emergency open heart surgeries. Father Earl, ever the Green Beret, wasn’t about to miss his boy’s first major as a professional.

So against doctor’s orders and just days after he flatlined on the operating table, Earl accompanied Tiger to the Masters, perhaps aware of the history on the horizon.

“It’s always been an emotional week for us as a family,” Woods said yesterday. “My first year here as a professional, my dad, actually he was dead, and then somehow they revived him. … He wasn’t supposed to come here. But somehow he came and gave me a putting lesson and I putted great.”

Woods’ play in every regard that year was actually closer to sublime, as he turned Bobby Jones’ shrine in the pines into Billy Joe’s pitch-and-putt en route to obliterating the field (by 12 strokes), the event’s scoring record (18-under, 270) and golf’s exclusive roster of lily-white major champions.

In the near-decade since that breakout, the 30-year-old Woods has made a seamless transition from logic-mocking prodigy to undisputed major leviathan. Woods has collected three more green jackets (2001, ‘02 and ‘05) and a total of 10 majors along the way. The epic novelty of ‘97 has given way to the jaded expectations strapped to all transcendent sports stars.

But if 1997’s litany of landmark accomplishments isn’t on the docket at this week’s Masters, Earl Woods is once again wrestling with mortality, this time in absentia. And Tiger will once again carry thoughts of his father, more inspiration than distraction, into the fray.

“If I’m on TV, more than likely he’ll watch,” said Woods, whose father is fighting cancer back in his childhood home in Cypress, Calif. “It’s something for him to look forward to, and hopefully I’m playing well where it gets him a little fired up that I’ve got a chance to win the tournament.”

Las Vegas has installed Woods as a 3-1 favorite this week, and the reasons for those short odds are virtually unlimited.

First, there’s his current form. He’s already claimed two PGA Tour titles this season, defending at both the Buick Invitational and Doral. Woods’ last two starts (tied for 20th at Bay Hill and tied for 22nd at the Players Championship) were respectively sidetracked by unusually erratic putting and an emergency, midweek, cross-country trip to visit his father. But with this week’s return to the diabolical greens nobody putts better, it seems his major routine would seem to promise a return to form.

Second, there’s his status as the Augusta Natural. Jack Nicklaus, he of the six green jackets and 18 major victories, is the only man who has ever had more success on the venerable layout. Augusta National’s traditional prerequisites for victory are a superb short game, length off the tee and precise iron play — in that order. Woods’ greatest strengths are an exact match. His only relative weakness, accuracy off the tee, is less of a detriment at somewhat spray-friendly Augusta National. And the greencoats certainly didn’t hurt Tiger’s feelings by adding 155 yards to the layout in the offseason, bumping the par-72 course to a near-major record 7,445 yards.

And finally, there’s Tiger’s almost incalculable will to win. It’s long been accepted that Tiger’s ultimate asset is his mind, or more specifically, his titanium-clad constitution. Not only does Tiger never choke (he’s won 34 of 37 events in which he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead), he often seems to virtually mentally manipulate ball, turf and even opponents en route to victory.

His career has been dotted with such moments, from his internal pep-talk at the turn after an opening-nine 40 at the 1997 Masters to last year’s outrageous final-round heroics at the 16th, when he executed a spinning chip from a devilish lie left of the green, traversing the putting surface and using the green’s famed funnel to record an almost unthinkable tournament-defining birdie.

“When I looked at it, I was like, ‘Wow, he’s got a really tough lie,’ ” playing partner and eventual playoff victim Chris DiMarco said when of the chip-in yesterday. “But, you know, you expect things from him, and I certainly didn’t expect him to make it, but I expected him to hit a good shot.”

And with his father, best friend and mentor fighting for his life but likely hanging on his every shot, one almost expects Tiger to will himself into a fifth green jacket this week.

“I’m very proud of my dad,” said Woods. “He’s a tremendous fighter, got an unbelievable will, and hopefully he’s passed a little bit of that on to me. I think that’s kind of how I play. I guess my competitiveness on the golf course, I guess that’s how it comes across is it’s a will. I got a lot of that from my dad. … He’s always with me.”

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