Augusta, Ga. -- As he walked off the 18th green last year after turning a late collapse into a sudden-death victory over Chris DiMarco, Tiger Woods looked sadly into the fading sunset hovering over Augusta National, his mind elsewhere.
Woods had just won his fourth Masters, but he was thinking more about his father, Earl. The prostate cancer that had first been diagnosed in 1998 and recurred in 2004 had spread, and his weakened condition had prevented the elder Woods from leaving the nearby house the family was sharing that week.
At the post-round ceremony to accept the traditional green jacket, the younger Woods cried in mentioning how much he missed his father not being there to see the victory.
When the best golfer in the world tees off here tomorrow at the 70th Masters, his thoughts will be in the same place as they were a year ago, with his father, 74, whose condition has deteriorated and recently been described as grave.
"I've been dealing with it for years, so nothing's changed," Tiger Woods said at a news conference yesterday. "It is what it is, and you deal with it. Everyone who has had a family member or lived that long, you're going to deal with it sometime.
"Unfortunately, it's our time right now."
Earl Woods was right behind the 18th green waiting to give his prodigy, then less than four months past his 21st birthday, an emotional bear hug after winning his first Masters nine years ago.
In becoming the first player of color to win the Masters, it didn't matter as much to the younger Woods that he set the tournament scoring record at 18-under-par and won by a tournament-record 12 strokes as the fact that the man he has described as his best friend was there to witness it.
Back then, Earl Woods was recovering from heart bypass surgery after nearly dying on the operating table a few months before.
"If anyone can fight and grind it out, it would be him," said the younger Woods, who turned 30 in late December. "It's always been an emotional week for us as a family because my first year here as a professional, actually he was dead and then somehow they revived him. He wasn't supposed to come here but somehow came and gave me a putting lesson and I putted great."
A player who has made a career out of comebacks, Woods almost blew last year's Masters. After his now famous chip-in hung on the lip before dropping for birdie on the par-3 16th to give Woods the lead, bogeys on the last two holes of regulation forced him into a playoff with DiMarco. Woods won with a 20-foot birdie on the first extra hole.
Woods attributes his competitive nature to his father, a former Green Beret who fought in Vietnam.
"I think that's kind of how I play," said Woods, looking to pull within one Masters title of the record established by Jack Nicklaus 20 years ago and to within seven of Nicklaus' record of 18 professional major championships. "I guess that's how it comes across, it's a will [to win]."
Since winning three of his first five events this season, Woods has not been in contention at either Bay Hill (tie for 20th) or The Players Championship (tie for 22nd). The day before the opening round at The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Woods flew to California to spend time with his father.
"It was nice when I flew back home during TPC and he said, 'What the hell are you doing here?' " recalled Woods. "It was nice to have him say that because the things he's been dealing with, it's nice for him to be that feisty. It's a good, good sign."
Woods won't use his father's condition as the reason for his recent spotty play.
"As far as that being a distraction, no, I had plenty of time to focus on each and every shot," said Woods. "I just hit poor shots and putted terrible. You add that all in together and I didn't finish very well in the tournament."
Asked if there are times on the course when he thinks more about his father than his golf, Woods said: "No, when you're out playing, you're out playing. When you're away from the course, obviously things are a little bit different. 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, just trying to get a feel for the course. So I've got enough on my head right now."
In a different way, Colin Montgomerie understands how Woods could be distracted. A couple of years ago, Montgomerie was trying to play while his messy divorce was being played out in the British tabloids. His game suffered.
"It is very difficult, and we all wish his father well," said Montgomerie. "It's hard when you make birdies and stuff. You can walk to the next tee and not think about things, but if you do make a mistake and you make a bogey or something, it tends to affect you more."
If anything, Woods is motivated by the fact that he hopes his father will be watching on television and, the better Woods plays, the better his father might feel.
"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," Woods said.
Woods said a couple of weeks ago that he wouldn't come to the Masters and defend his title if he thought his father's death was imminent. He declined to disclose his father's condition yesterday.
"He's fighting," the proud prodigy said.
Where -- Augusta, Ga.
When -- Tomorrow-Sunday
Course -- Augusta National (7,445 yards, par 72)
Purse -- TBA ($7 million in 2005). Winner's share: TBA ($1.26 million in 2005)
TV -- USA (tomorrow-Friday, 4-7 p.m.) and CBS (Saturday, 3:30-7 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30-7 p.m.)
Defending champion --Tiger Woods