Golf: Woods picks the Masters for his return

FILE - This April 7, 2009, file photo shows Tiger Woods speaking to the media during a news conference at the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga.  (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
FILE - This April 7, 2009, file photo shows Tiger Woods speaking to the media during a news conference at the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File) AP

Immense hedges and thickets of azalea trees surround the Augusta National Golf Club, concealing its picturesque fairways from the outside world.

Fans at the club’s annual Masters tournament are known for their gentility — they are referred to as “patrons” — and media access is tightly controlled.

So it makes sense that Tiger Woods would choose the Masters as a suitable place to emerge from seclusion, the troubled superstar announcing Tuesday he will resume his career in early April after months of wrestling privately with the fallout from his widely reported extramarital affairs.

“The Masters is where I won my first major, and I view this tournament with great respect,” he said in a statement on his web site. “After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I’m ready to start my season at Augusta.”

The controlled environment of The Masters is also a perfect spot for a carefully orchestrated rehabilitation. There are few details left unattended. Commercial signage, such as on fountain drink dispensers, is shielded. The food you buy comes wrapped in green paper as to not sully the course.

It’s the only tournament where the media is not allowed inside the ropes and a member runs the news conferences. The patron badges are limited to a number that has never been disclosed. And television is even limited to the numbers of commercials it can show.

There is much at stake for Woods, trying to reclaim his status as a pre-eminent athlete and a marketing juggernaut who once earned more than $100 million annually in endorsements.

Although Augusta offers a cloistered setting, he will nonetheless be in the public eye, playing on golf’s biggest stage and one of its most-challenging courses.

“I mean, it’s going to be tough,” said Matt Killen, a swing coach who works with PGA Tour players such as Kenny Perry and Josh Teater. “He hasn’t been competitive in a while and being competitive is something that players usually like to warm back up to.”

Woods has remained largely hidden since the November night when he ran his car over a fire hydrant and smashed into a neighbor’s tree. The accident touched off a frenzy of media reports about his liaisons with various women.

Big-money sponsors such as AT&T and Accenture severed ties with the golfer whose image had once been squeaky clean. Woods was subsequently photographed outside a clinic for sex addicts in Mississippi amid rampant speculation about the future of his marriage.

After releasing a series of terse comments on his Web site, he finally appeared before cameras in February, looking shaken while giving a prepared speech.

On Tuesday, he said: “I have undergone almost two months of inpatient therapy, and I am continuing my treatment. Although I’m returning to competition, I still have a lot of work to do in my personal life.”

At the very least, his return has television executives hoping for record viewership during the Masters. The first two rounds will be broadcast on ESPN, the final two on CBS.

Asked about Woods’ return last week, CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus told the Associated Press: “My only prediction is when he comes back, it will be, other than the Obama inauguration, one of if not the biggest media spectacle in recent memory.”

The largest television audience ever for the Masters was in 1997, when 15.8 million people watched as Woods won the tournament for the first time. The second largest audience was in 2001 when he won it for a second time. But in both instances, millions watched but few could get close in this very controlled environment. Woods could be public and private at the same time.

PGA Tour officials seemed equally enthusiastic in welcoming Woods back to a game that has missed his star power. So did those corporate sponsors who stayed with him through the controversy.

“Like many sports fans around the world, we’re looking forward to seeing Tiger back on the course,” a Gillette spokesman said.

But sponsors and well-wishers won’t help Woods when he needs to hit a wedge shot within 10 feet of the flag.

Woods has won 71 PGA Tournaments during a 14-year pro career and his 14 victories in major tournaments — the Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship and British Open — rank second to Jack Nicklaus’ 18. This will be only the third time that Woods has returned from a prolonged absence.