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With 'best friend' on his mind, Tiger focused

WashPost: Woods favored to win Masters, but only if dad, Earl, doesn’t become more ill
Target World Challenge
Tiger Woods, shown here with his father, Earl Woods, during the Target Challenge in 2004, is playing this year's Masters with his father's health on his mind, but is trying to focus on winning.Doug Benc / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Tiger Woods is on the grounds, and staying around this week, trying to win his fifth Masters title since he turned professional in 1996.

As long as his ailing father Earl does not take a turn for the worse over the next five days, Woods should add a fifth green jacket to his wardrobe, and an 11th major championship to his resume.

Much has been made over the years of the bond between Woods and his 74-year-old father, the first man who hugged him when he won his first Masters in 1997 in such stunning style, the first man to teach him the game as a young child.

Woods has always described his old man as "my best friend," even if his "Pops" was the guy who also rattled change in his pocket as a younger Tiger was concentrating over a putt, or coughed loudly on his backswing, the better to toughen him up for the rigors of tournament play in front of thousands swirling all around him.

Two weeks ago at The Players Championship, Tiger left Jacksonville to fly west to see his father, who was not doing too well in his long battle with a recurrence of prostate cancer. Woods came back to play the tournament, but despite his many denials, he clearly seemed distracted in posting a tie for 22nd, including a 75 on Sunday.

Woods met with the media here on Tuesday two days before he'll tee off in his 12th Masters and insisted again that his father's battle with cancer will not keep him from focusing on the task at hand. He said he speaks with Earl Woods every day, generally avoided questions about the up-to-the-minute status of his health and left little doubt that if things suddenly got bad, he'd have no qualms about leaving Augusta and heading west again, no matter where he stood in the tournament.

"I've been dealing with it for years, so nothing has changed," Woods said. "It is what it is and you just deal with it. Everyone who has had a family member that's lived that long, you're going to deal with it some time. Unfortunately it's our time right now. But as far as being a distraction, no. I had plenty of time to focus on each and every shot (at The Players two weeks ago). I just hit poor shots and putted terrible.

"It's always been family first. Our family, golf has always come down the road. It's always been family, then school, then golf. It's hard for my mom as well, and everyone who knows my father. It's very difficult. It puts it in perspective really quick when you hit a bad shot out there when you're thinking about situations like that."

Woods and everyone else in the field this week have other concerns, all of them involving the golf course.

They'll be playing the longest course in Masters history, a 7,445-yard monster that not only has an additional 155 yards in length from a year ago, but includes several holes that have been narrowed considerably to put even more of a premium on driving accuracy.

Many players have been saying all the politically correct things about the changes this week, including Woods. Asked at one point if he could pick out one hole where changes were not necessary and tell that to Masters Chairman Hootie Johnson, Woods literally rolled his eyes and said "I want to be invited back" and did not answer.

Both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer also have been critical of the changes, and they're actually members of Augusta National, with ten Masters victories between them. Of course, Johnson never consulted either one of them before the bulldozers showed up, which is truly par for this course and this club.

Augusta National has been accused of trying to Tiger-proof this golf course ever since his runaway record 12-shot victory in 1997. But every time they lengthen the place, they simply give him and the tour's other longest hitters a clear advantage, especially if it rains and fairways soften up.

Then again, many players also know that the putter may also be the most important stick in the bag.

"That's what keeps everyone in this tournament, bottom line," said Chris DiMarco, who lost to Woods in a playoff last year and is not one of the longer players in the game. "The year Tiger won by 12 ('96), he didn't have a three-putt the whole week. That's why he won the tournament. It wasn't because of how great he hit it. He made every putt from eight feet in and that's why he won. Putting is the key, still."

That's why the pick here is Woods, as usual, barring bad news from his father's house in Southern California. He's played 11 (two as an amateur in 1995-96), won in four of his nine appearances as a pro, had a fifth place finish and an eighth place finish. With that sort of success, is it any wonder when Woods was asked Tuesday if he'd take himself against the field, he smiled and said "I'll never not take that bet."

Masters Picks
1. Tiger Woods: Barring bad news on his ailing father in Southern California, Woods has to be the favorite any time he tees it up at Augusta National, even more so now that the course had been lengthened again.

2. Retief Goosen: The South African is the best fast green putter in history, and at least for the first two days, with no rain in the forecast, these greens will putt like marble table tops.

3. Phil Mickelson: His stunning 28-under for 72 holes last week in Atlanta should earn him plenty of support, but Augusta National is a vastly different course and he may have problems on these greens.

4. Vijay Singh: His length will always put him on the short list of favorites, but his erratic putting also could be a hindrance.

5. Adam Scott: He's finally cut his hair after a dreadful 82 in the final round at The Players and perhaps it's time for the young Australian to pick up his first major.

Longshot Special: Bernhard Langer, even at 48, has eight top ten finishes in the Masters, including two wins here, and is playing well.