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The Baltimore Sun

BETHESDA -- The last time Tiger Woods played a golf tournament near the nation's capital, he came to Congressional Country Club for the 1997 U.S. Open as the game's most talked about player, a former child prodigy who proved worthy of the hype by winning the Masters as a 21-year-old rookie.

A decade later, after winning 56 more PGA Tour events, including another 11 majors, Woods is returning this week to Congressional as host of his own tournament, the inaugural AT&T; National, beginning tomorrow. He is also returning as a first-time father.

Woods' daughter, Sam Alexis, was born June 18, and this will be Woods' first tournament since her birth. "It's just time management and understanding where your priorities are, and our priorities are with Sam," Woods said at a packed news conference yesterday. "That's the one priority. You work it out from there."

How Woods performs now that he has a child will be scrutinized as much as he has been analyzed throughout his already legendary career. Just as his accomplishments have been measured against those of Jack Nicklaus, Woods will also be compared to how Nicklaus balanced being the father of five with becoming the greatest player of all time.

It might not be the most accurate comparison, since Nicklaus was 21 when he and wife Barbara had their first child -- shortly after he won the U.S. Amateur and before turning pro -- and 31 when his wife delivered their youngest. Nicklaus won the last of his record 18 major championships at age 46.

"You can't practice all day long," Nicklaus said earlier this year, when asked about Woods becoming a father. "You've got plenty of time for a family and plenty of time to play golf. That's not a big deal. So, you know -- Tiger will do just fine."

Said Woods: "I really haven't quite experienced what he's experienced, and how it's going to be when we start traveling together. But for him to do that throughout his entire career and raise great kids ... and to have as close a family as they have, because a lot of times when people travel a bunch, there's a disconnect, that's certainly not apparent in the Nicklaus household."

Tom Watson was closer in age (30) and stature to Woods when he became a father in 1979. Waston was in the midst of a four-year run at the top of the PGA Tour money list and it wasn't until two years after his second child was born in 1983 that Watson's career began to slip, mostly because of the yips.

The disappointment Woods felt in finishing tied for second by a stroke to Angel Cabrera of Argentina in this year's U.S. Open at Oakmont was muted by his daughter's birth the next day. It marked the second time this year Woods had come close in a major; he finished tied for second behind Zach Johnson in the Masters.

Woods disclosed yesterday that he played in the Open despite the fact that his wife, Elin, was hospitalized in Orlando, Fla., starting the day of the opening round because of what he described as complications that were not life-threatening. Still, he was distracted.

"It was not easy because I wanted to be there [in Orlando]," Woods said. "The doctor and Elin said, 'There's nothing you can do. So go out there and just get a "W." ' Came close. But that night [when Sam Alexis was born] was infinitely more rewarding than any 'W' could have been."

Woods said that his daughter's first name is in part a tribute to the nickname his late father, Earl, called him. Woods will honor his father today with the Earl Woods Memorial Pro-Am, where he will play with two members of the armed forces.

"My father had always called me Sam since the day I was born. He rarely ever called me Tiger," said Woods, whose more common nickname is the same as one of the elder Woods' friends who served with him during the Vietnam War. "I would ask him, 'Why don't you call me Tiger?' He said, 'You look more like a Sam.'"

It was Earl Woods who boldly predicted that his son would take over the PGA Tour. After a dominating amateur career, Woods won his first major as a professional by a record 12 strokes and broke the Masters scoring record previously shared by Nicklaus and Ray Floyd with a score of 18-under par.

By the time Woods arrived at Congressional two months later, Tiger-mania was in full hysteria. His first practice round seemed more like a Sunday back nine at a major. But Woods flirted with missing the cut and after a brief comeback on the weekend, finished tied for 19th.

"I was actually telling Stevie [Williams, his caddie] that I wish I had the understanding of how to play the game back then, because strategically I would have played it so differently than I did," Woods said yesterday. "I did not make the right moves consistently."

As Woods went from the practice tee to the practice green yesterday morning, a different sort of buzz followed him than a decade ago. He was no longer just the game's most talked about player. He was the world's most famous athlete who had recently become a first-time father.

Admitting that he had already put a club in daughter Sam's tiny hands -- "She couldn't quite hold it, but it was there," he joked -- Woods seemed genuinely appreciative of a gift (a mini pingpong table) sent by longtime rival Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy.

"To come from Phil and Amy, it's very special," said Woods, whose once-cool relationship with Mickelson seems to have warmed over the past two years.

Along with the gifts, Woods has received a lot of advice about fatherhood, much of it concerning the lack of sleep.

"Last night was kind of interesting, my first night away from home and I had to wake up basically every 45 minutes," Woods said with a smile. "It was 'OK, go back to sleep. ... Oh, OK, it's been six minutes.' So that's kind of how the whole night went."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Tournament info

Schedule

Today: Earl Woods Memorial Pro-Am, 6:30 a.m.

Tomorrow -Friday: Play begins at 7 a.m.

Saturday-Sunday: Play begins at 8 a.m.

Tickets

Daily passes: Today-Friday: $20 per day; Saturday-Sunday: $25 per day

Weekly badge: $65

Daily youth ticket: Ages 13-17, $10 per day (available at gate only); ages 12 and younger are admitted free at gate when accompanied by a ticket-holding adult (limit two children per adult).

On television

Tomorrow-Friday: 4 p.m.-6 p.m., Golf Channel

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