May3 tigerdadday


In a couple of months, it will all change for Tiger Woods.

"This time last year was not a fun period in my life,'' he said. "But now a year later, here I am, looking forward to becoming a father. Times have changed.''

He prepared for the Wachovia Championship by playing with his friend Michael Jordan in a pro-am on Wednesday. The tournament starts today (Thursday), a year to the day after Woods' father died.

Woods skipped the Wachovia last year as Earl Woods' health deteriorated. On the eve of the tournament the man behind Woods' steely resolve and fierce competitive streak died of cancer.

Woods returned to competitive golf six weeks later and missed the cut at the U.S. Open. But Woods recovered to win the British Open and PGA Championship and didn't finish worse than second in any other stroke play event the rest of the year.

He's playing this week for the first time since he tied for second at the Masters.

"But still, there are times when I thoroughly miss my dad,'' Woods said. "I just wish I could talk to him, hear his voice and ask him for advice on certain things. Basically, he was my best friend. Not only did I lose my father, but my best friend.''

Woods is starting to feel good again. His wife Elin is expected to give birth in two months and Woods is beginning an important stretch leading to next month's U.S. Open.

"I'm really excited to get back,'' Woods said. "I took probably almost two weeks off and started cranking up pretty hard over the last week and a half or so. I'm really starting to get back into it.''

Woods' presence at the Wachovia gives the tournament one of the top nonmajor fields of the year, with 27 of the top 30 golfers in the world rankings. Played on an old-school par-72 course playing at 7,442 yards, the tournament has become a must-play event despite entering only its fifth year.

The tournament's date - a week before The Players' Championship - has also given the event a large number of foreign players, with Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia and Darren Clarke in the field.

"It's in great shape and this is one of the best tournaments on the Tour,'' Phil Mickelson said. ``We're all excited to be here. This has a special feel, much like a major.''

Mickelson will play in his second straight tournament since he hired Butch Harmon as his new coach. Mickelson tied for third at last week's Byron Nelson Championship.

"I thought I started to hit the ball how I wanted to, and I'm going to need that to carry over this week because this golf course is very challenging off the tee,'' Mickelson said.

The past two winners, Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh, were able to keep the ball in the fairway and navigate the closing three holes, rated the toughest on the PGA Tour the past three years.

Furyk, who won last year's event by parring the first playoff hole to beat Trevor Immelman, has been tinkering with his iron game since he missed the cut last month at the Verizon Heritage.

"The club is going through the ground much better right now,'' Furyk said. "And I think it's helped my rhythm, my tempo and timing.''