ORLANDO, Florida, March 16, 2010 (AFP) - Tiger Woods set the stage Tuesday for an emotional return to competitive golf, announcing plans to play at next month's Masters after a five-month layoff over a sex scandal that wrecked his iconic image.
World number one Woods said in a statement that he would return to the sport he has long dominated at famed Augusta National Golf Club, which has no women members, at the year's first major championship on April 8.
|(FILES) In a file picture taken on October 8, 2009 US golfer Tiger Woods reacts to his shot out of a bunker on the 5th hole on the first day of the Presidents Cup golf competition at Harding Park Golf course in San Francisco, California. AFP file|
"After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I'm ready to start my season at Augusta," Woods said on his website. "The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect."
After his personal life was shattered following revelations about a series of affairs, Woods returns in a comfortable setting where he has captured four titles, his first in 1997 being the first major crown won by a black golfer.
"The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be, even though it has been a while since I last played," Woods said.
Woods has not played in a tournament since winning the Australian Masters on November 15, the 82nd triumph of an amazing pro career that has seen him win 14 major titles, four shy of matching the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus.
Woods decided against playing in a tune-up event to prepare for the Masters, skipping a chance to defend his title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in an event he had never before missed.
"When I finally got into a position to think about competitive golf again, it became apparent to me that the Masters would be the earliest I could play," Woods said.
Woods, whose 71 career PGA titles rank third behind Sam Snead's record 82 and 73 by Nicklaus, called Palmer to say he would not defend his crown before announcing his decision on the Masters.
"I would think for Tiger it's going to be tough. It's going to be something that's going to take him a little time to get used to," Palmer told the Golf Channel.
"He knows what he wants to do with his life and the way he's going to handle it and I guess we're going to give him that respect."
A November 27 car crash near Woods's home touched off a global scandal, leading to his admission of adultery and putting his golf career on hold while he fought his own personal demons.
"I have undergone almost two months of inpatient therapy and I am continuing my treatment," Woods said. "Although I'm returning to competition, I still have a lot of work to do in my personal life."
Woods might be making progress on that front as well. A photograph on the front page of Tuesday's New York Post shows Woods and wife Elin, a former model, walking at their home, the first photo of them together since the scandal. The couple also has two young children.
Those who make money because of the attention Woods brings were excited about his comeback as well.
"We were pleased to learn that Tiger Woods will be playing the Masters in a few weeks," US PGA commissioner Tim Finchem said.
"He has invested a lot of time taking steps, both in his personal and professional life, in order to prepare for his return. We all wish him and his family all the best."
British bookmaker William Hill has made Woods a 4-1 favorite to win the Masters, where Woods will benefit from a controlled atmosphere and traditional spectator decorum, likely removing hecklers as a distraction.
"We support Tiger's decision to return to competitive golf beginning at this year's Masters," Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne said.
"Additionally, we support and encourage his stated commitment to continue the significant work required to rebuild his personal and professional life."
After more than a dozen women claimed sexual encounters with Woods, he has faced ridicule and the loss of many of the sponsors whose endorsement deals helped make him the first billion-dollar earner in sports.
Gatorade, Accenture and AT&T dropped Woods, although Nike stuck by the man they began endorsing when he turned professional in 1996.
"We look forward to Tiger's return to the Masters and seeing him back on the course," Nike said in a statement.
In recent weeks, Woods was seen working on his game as he tries to recover physically and emotionally from the turmoil that swirled around him.
"We need him back out here," said Rocco Mediate, who lost to Woods in a 2008 US Open playoff. "If anybody can cut through that stuff, he can cut through it. We'll see. I don't think it's going to knock him down too much."