Back on course: Tiger plans to return next month in Florida

Woods expected to announce his comeback today at Bay Hill tournament near his home in Orlando
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The Independent Online

When Tiger Woods at last fronts up to the world in his carefully choreographed television statement today he is expected to announce that he will make his competitive return to golf at next month's Bay Hill Invitational in Florida.

Arnold Palmer, the tournament's organiser, will be present at the rigidly controlled gathering of "friends, colleagues and close assistants" at the PGA Tour's headquarters in Jacksonville, where the world No 1 will break his three-month silence to apologise for his infidelities and to talk about his plans to end his "indefinite break" from the professional fairways.

It is believed his first playing appearance in front of paying spectators will actually come at the two-day Tavistock Cup – an exhibition match held very close to his Isleworth home – which begins on 22 March. Then, two days after that finishes, he will tee it up at nearby Bay Hill. This will act as his prep event for the Masters, the first major of the season, which takes place a fortnight later.

It may seem ironic to many that the first tee at the Tavistock Cup happens to be only a few hundred yards from the fire hydrant which Woods crashed into on 27 November, bursting free a torrid of revelations about his private life in the process. For nigh on three months the global media has been awash with tales of multiple affairs, of marital separations, even of an association with a doctor arrested on drug-doping charges. The fallout led to the father of two issuing an apology on his website and calling a pause on his career, as he tried to save his marriage.

After Woods' TV appearance was announced on Wednesday, Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour's commissioner, confirmed newspaper reports that Woods has been undergoing rehab at a sex addiction clinic. And rumours here at the WGC World Match Play Championship yesterday suggest that Woods is due to return to the clinic at the weekend for the last stages of his treatment and that this will be the reason he gives for the timing of today's "coming out of hiding" soliloquy. He will be wise to address the matter as there has been fury amongt his fellow professionals that he has chosen the Friday of a high-profile event to make his long-awaited reappearance.

The fact that Accenture, the sponsors of the Match Play, were the first of Woods' backers to drop him in the wake of the scandal was not lost on anybody. And neither was the fact that Woods appeared in public for the first time yesterday and that an agency was on hand to snap the images of him out jogging. So not only was there a story to obliterate coverage of the first day's action, but an illustration as well. Uncanny. Not to mention unwelcome. "It's selfish," Ernie Els told the American magazine Golf Week. "You can write that. I feel sorry for the sponsor. Mondays are a good day to make statements, not Friday. This takes a lot away from the golf tournament."

Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent, responded to Els's remarks telling the same magazine: "It's always good to get your information right before commenting. It's strictly a timing issue. There is a very good reason [for Friday] and not doing it next week." Even if this does happen to be because of rehab factors then it is doubtful in the extreme that Els will regret his comments. For as one well-placed insider said yesterday: "Tiger has lost all respect among his peers and overshadowing this event in this manner will only lessen his stature among them still further. By the selfishness and arrogance of this timing he obviously thinks nothing has changed. Well, he'll soon discover that something has changed. It's how the rest will look at him."

In short, the 14-times major winner has lost the locker room. That much was obvious from the comments made by competitors here who would never before have dared utter anything remotely critical about Woods. When a 20-year-old such as Rory McIlroy feels comfortable saying, "I suppose he wanted to get back at the sponsors" and then to add "I'm sick of hearing about it", it is easy to spot the hero-worship running short. Geoff Ogilvy, the Match Play's defending champion, was also critical. "Maybe we can put the whole tournament on hold for 10 minutes to watch," said the Australian. "The only thing I will say about it is that I would like to see him answer some questions. If he answers some questions then that would make it real because he wouldn't be working off a script."

There is also anger with the PGA Tour for acceding to the Woods camp's request to use its HQ on such an inappropriate day in the calendar. Finchem will be among the 30 or so "friends, colleagues etc" who will be in the background (along with Palmer, Woods' mother and representatives from his main sponsor, Nike) as Woods reads his statement, although his deputy, Ty Votaw, claimed that there would be no sit-down between the errant superstar and the hierarchy. The officials are understandably keen to have their main draw-card back on the circuit but the Tour is in danger of being seen as beholden to his every demand.

“I don’t think it’s very good, to be honest,” said the English Ryder Cup man, Oliver Wilson. “I don’t know the ins and outs and the politics, but from the players’ point of view it does seem very poor. You have a brilliant event being staged here and the sponsors deserve a lot more. And for the Tour to be setting it up in their headquarters... well, I just don’t think that's right.”