Tiger Woods yesterday announced he will end his "indefinite break" at the Masters in three weeks' time. The world No 1 has taken the unprecedented decision to bypass the warm-up events and head directly to the season's first major.
And although he claims his game will not be ready before Augusta due to more than four months of competitive inactivity, fellow pros suggest his choice of comeback venue has more to do with it possessing the most "controlled" environment in golf.
Woods broke the long-awaited news on his website. "The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect," he said. "After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I'm ready to start my season at Augusta. The majors 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's been a while since I last played.
"I have undergone almost two months of in-patient 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. When I finally got into a position to think about competitive golf again, it became apparent to me the Masters would be the earliest I could play."
Since he crashed his car outside his home in November, the revelations of Woods' multiple extra-marital affairs have stunned the world. As mistress after mistress came forward, sponsors began to walk away from the most coveted brand in sport. Woods is estimated to have lost upwards of £15m a year in endorsements. He was not seen in public until a televised statement last month in which he revealed he was undergoing rehab, reportedly for sex addiction.
An emotional Woods also said: "I do plan to return to golf one day, I just don't know what day that will be. I don't rule out that it will be this year." Some will feel surprised such a seemingly broken man has felt able to return so soon and will question if he was sincere.
However, after receiving word that Woods had returned to the practice range and was working with not only his coach, Hank Haney, but also Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary of President George W Bush, rumours swept golfing circles of an imminent comeback. Indeed, the only shock surrounds the fact Woods has elected not to play a PGA Tour event – such as next week's Arnold Palmer Invitation, which he has never before missed and has won six times – to prepare for one of golf's toughest challenges. The absence at Augusta of rowdy crowds and the restrictions on the media are taken to be the main factors in his choice.
"It's the most controlled atmosphere you could have," said Jim Furyk, Woods' Ryder Cup partner. "Everyone is different that week. The fans are as well behaved as you can get because they're all afraid they're going to lose their ticket."
Nevertheless, the Masters will still be, in Palmer's description, "tough" for Woods. It also promises to be the most watched event in the sport's history and some are billing it as "golf's biggest ever event". That will not stop the journalists allowed in probing Woods for answers he may not wish to give. His interaction with his peers will also be of huge interest. At least one of their number believes he should not dare to overshadow the Masters.
"Whenever he comes back it's going to draw a lot of attention to that tournament," said the world No 2, Steve Stricker, earlier this week. "I don't know if Augusta would like that to happen, you know? To turn it into 'Tiger's Comeback Tournament' instead of the Masters tournament itself."
Bookmakers have installed Woods as the 4-1 favourite to win his 15th major and Geoff Ogilvy believes he is more than capable. "Everyone has made a career out of underestimating Tiger Woods," said the Australian.
Palmer spoke to Woods yesterday when he rang to apologise for missing defending his Bay Hill title next week. "He sounded good. He had some zip in his voice," Palmer said. "He knows what he wants to do with his life and the way he's going to handle it. But it's going to be tough. It's going to be something Tiger's going to take time to get used to."
Clubhouse reaction: What pros think
'Tiger will be focused on what he needs to do. The thing about Augusta is it's not like you can just walk in and buy a ticket, so there's less crowds.'
'It is going to be tough, it is going to be something that will take him time to get used to. I am sure that he will anticipate all those things before he gets there and he will understand the things that might happen.'
'Steve Stricker has spoken out and said it would be unfortunate if it turned into a 'Tiger comeback tournament' rather than The Masters championship itself. I don't think The Masters will allow that to happen. I think they will have all the media right in the place where they want them. I think the situation is one he can control. They will be able to control things a lot easier at The Masters than at any other event.'
Biting back: Tiger's previous returns
2006 US Open
The death of his father, Earl, saw Woods take off nine weeks before returning at the US Open at Winged Foot. He suffered his first missed cut in a major as a pro. "I was not ready to play golf," he said.
2008 US Open
Defied a two-month break after knee surgery, as well as an ACL injury and a double-stress fracture of the tibia, to beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole US Open play-off at Torrey Pines. Woods called it his "best major win" and went off to have more knee surgery.
2009 Accenture Match Play
In all, Woods missed eight months after his knee construction. Eventually emerged the next year at the Match Play in Tucson. Won his first match but then knocked out by Tim Clark. Had to wait until his third comeback tournament to win.
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