AUGUSTA, Ga. - Last April, for the fourth time, Tiger Woods returned to Augusta National as the defending champion. He also came with the knowledge that his father Earl was about to lose a prolonged battle with cancer. Which meant he probably never wanted to win any tournament more.

Maybe that was the problem. Or, perhaps it was his inconsistent putting. Whatever, it didn't happen. Because he's still human. So he finished tied for third, three shots behind Phil Mickelson, the 2004 and '06 champion. Woods wouldn't play again until the U.S. Open, 2 months later. He missed the cut there. At 30 years old, his life and career had hit another crossroads.

"Last year was a lot more difficult than I was letting on," Woods admitted yesterday afternoon, some 48 hours before he attempts to win a fifth green jacket, and third straight major. "Because I knew that was the last tournament he was ever going to watch me play. I just wanted to win one for his last time and didn't get it done. And that hurt quite a bit.

"That's probably one of the reasons why you saw the emotions so, I guess, apparent at the British Open [which he won in July]. I wanted that to be when he was [still] alive, just one last time."

A lot has obviously transpired since then, on the course and away from it. He also won his third PGA Championship in August, his 12th career major. So he comes here halfway to a second Tiger Slam. Not that anyone seems to be making too big a deal of it, including him. Maybe him most of all. Been there, seen that. If anybody else was in a similar position, say Mickelson, it would of course be much different. That's a testamant to Tiger's magnitude. He's almost desensitized us.

"No," he said, when asked if he's thinking about winning four in a row again. "I'm thinking about trying to play my ball around this golf course. That's about it.

"My whole preparation is getting the ball in play [off the tee] and putting the ball on the correct parts of the green and getting the speed of [them]. I've played [three practice rounds], and they've been three different speeds. So as usual around here, they usually change things a little bit. So I'm just trying to get the adjustments and get ready for the week."

For those who haven't been paying close enough attention, this is the first major he'll be playing since his wife Elin became pregnant with their first child. She is expected to give birth in late June or early July. Which means his family life is about to get turned upside down for the second time in a little more than 12 months.

Everyone wants to know how being a parent could have an impact to his approach to the game he owns.

"Sleepless nights," he said, when asked what he anticipates. "Our whole priority is to raise our child. That's No. 1."

But will golf remain as important?

"I don't know," he hedged. "Certainly it will be more difficult to try and prepare. Because we're going to have a little one, and it's our responsibility to try and raise it as best we possibly can. And that's going to require a lot of energy. But I don't know, because I've never gone through it before. I don't how my preparation is going to change or not, and how my playing schedule is going to change or not. These are all things that are up in the air, because I really don't know."

What first-time father ever was? And, by the way, what kind of dad does he intend to be, the softie or the bad cop?

"Disciplinarian," he shot back quickly, with a smile. "Trust me. I take after my mom in that regard.

"My mom's probably more competitive than my father outwardly. She's certainly more abrasive about her emotions and she wears them on her sleeves. Dad was not like that. Dad was more icy and more cool. So when I'm out there on the golf course, I get a little fiery, I think that's mom coming out. If I'm playing pretty cool and level-headed, it's definitely dad."

He said Earl won't serve as his "ultimate" role model when it comes to bringing young Tiger along. But . . .

"I'm pretty lucky to have had him in my life," he insisted. "And a lot of things. It's amazing that I'm here, 31 years old, and my father is getting smarter every year. It's just amazing. Hopefully my child, some time down the road a little bit, will say the same thing."

In the meantime, there's more history to be made. Starting at his most prolific venue.

"You soak [the atmosphere] all in," he explained. "We have the Champions dinner, and it's fun to hear the stories. But when it's time to play, it's time to play. You put all that aside and go get the job done."

Palmer the starter

As anticipated, four-time Masters champ Arnold Palmer has accepted an invitation from Augusta National to become the Honorary Starter, beginning tomorrow.

"The time was right," he said. "Augusta is one of my favorite places, and the Masters has meant so much to me personally throughout my career . . . I hope in some way I can show my gratitude to the fans who have followed and supported me [here] these many years."

Starting in 1955, he played in this major 50 consecutive times.

The tradition started in 1963, with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod performing the duties. Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Ken Venturi and Sam Snead continued the practice through 2002.

At some point, the hope is that six-time winner Jack Nicklaus will join that list as well. *