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Tiger's time finally arrives at Augusta

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Augusta National will afford Tiger Woods the most controlled environment in golf, and maybe all of sports.

(AP) —Tiger Woods will drive past the 61 trees that form a canopy down Magnolia Lane, pull up in front of the white clubhouse at Augusta National and walk up the stairs on the side of the building to a locker room reserved for Masters champions.

It's a routine he has followed since he won his first green jacket.

Nothing else about this Masters figures to be remotely routine, not even that familiar introduction on the first tee.

"Fore, please. Tiger Woods."

Five months after a sex scandal that still lingers on the Internet and in the tabloids, Woods is coming back to golf - at a major that already attracts the largest television audience.

From his first press conference on Monday to his opening tee shot on Thursday, through Amen Corner and along the azaleas and dogwoods and Georgia pines, this should be a Masters like no other.

"I think it's going to be one of the biggest events in golf history, because the biggest player in golf history is going to come back from this absence, and everybody is going to be scrutinizing his game and what he says and where he goes and where he has dinner ... everything," British Open champion Stewart Cink said.

For a dozen years, Woods has been the favorite to win at Augusta.

Now he's everyone's favorite punch line.

The countdown toward Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 majors has been replaced by a count of his mistresses.

"He's made a career out of exceeding expectations," Geoff Ogilvy said. "He's spent his whole life under a microscope, but this is going to be on a level he's never seen before."

Woods went 15 weeks without touching a club while in seclusion from the paparazzi and in therapy for the deviant double life he was leading. He began practicing on Feb. 28. He spent two days at Augusta National in the weeks leading up to the Masters.

Even so, he has no idea what to expect when he returns - from his game or from the gallery.

"I'm a little nervous about that to be honest with you," he told ESPN in a pair of five-minute interviews he gave television. "It would be nice to hear a couple claps here and there."

Nervous? Woods has spent a career making other people nervous with his 14 majors, 82 victories worldwide and a trophy from every continent where golf is played.

A couple of claps? This is a guy who was wildly cheered for walking onto the tee.

Fans stood five deep on both sides of the fairway from every tee to every green the last time Woods competed. It was the Australian Masters in Melbourne, and he shot 68 in the final round on Nov. 15 for a two-shot victory.

Everything changed 12 days later.

In the middle of the night, Woods drove his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree, a single-car accident that set off explosive revelations of rampant affairs, and the biggest scandal the genteel sport of golf has ever known.

Three of his biggest sponsors dropped him. Comedians made fun of him. Players weren't sure what to say about him.

Woods might have summed it up best when he spoke publicly on Feb. 19 at the TPC Sawgrass in a 13 1/2-minute statement he read to a room of family and associates and to a worldwide television audience.

"I have made you question who I am and how I could have done the things I did," he said.

Will anyone ever look at him the same?

"We have all put him up on such a pedestal, not only in the golf, but we took for granted the personal side, too," said Steve Stricker, who went 4-0 with Woods as his partner in the Presidents Cup. "We'll have to wait and see what golf he brings when he comes back. This may fire him up even more and make him even stronger. He may have less distractions. Who knows? He could be better."

Augusta National already has said it would allow ESPN to show Woods' opening tee shot. CBS president Sean McManus predicted that Woods at the Masters would rank only behind President Barack Obama's inauguration as the "biggest media spectacle."

Equally curious will be the golf itself, especially now.

Woods last won a major at the 2008 U.S. Open, when he returned from a nine-week break to win at Torrey Pines on a left knee so torn up that he had season-ending surgery a week later.

He has never missed the cut at the Masters as a pro. He has won four times, but just once over the last seven years. And he hasn't hit a meaningful shot in five months.

"Do I think Tiger Woods can be a competitive factor at the Masters? I can't believe you're even asking that question," Cink said. "We're talking about Tiger Woods, the best player that's ever played golf. I've seen the players who are usually in that conversation. I've never seen anybody that plays golf like Tiger Woods does. So the answer to that question is 'Yes, I believe he can be a factor.'"

Beyond the Masters, can he resume his pursuit of Nicklaus' 18 majors?

This already was shaping up as pivotal year for the 34-year-old Woods, with three of the majors held on courses where he has won seven of his 14 majors - Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.

"If Tiger is going to pass my record, this is a big year for him in that regard," Nicklaus said at the start of the season.

Golf managed to go on without him, even if fewer people were paying attention. Television ratings were down, and galleries were sparse at tournament that Woods traditionally played.

On the course, no one filled the void. It took until the 12th week of the season - Bay Hill - for Ernie Els to become the first multiple winner on the PGA Tour. Eight players from the top 30 in the world have won.

The defending champion at the Masters is Angel Cabrera, who will serve Argentine beef at the champions dinner Tuesday. It is not known whether Woods plans to attends.

Els, a longtime rival, was among the most critical of Woods when he said the world's No. 1 player was being "selfish" for choosing the middle of the Accenture Match Play Championship - Accenture was the first sponsor to drop Woods - to make his first public appearance.

Now Els is a little tired of talking about him, an example of the pall Woods' absence has cast over golf.

"It's basically affected a lot of lives on tour, as well, because of the constant questioning that we have to answer about a fellow player's private life," Els said. "It's hard enough to make pars and birdies out there than with this whole situation hanging on the tour and everything else."

The Masters might be the first step toward returning golf to some degree of normalcy. Woods is playing again, his first time in America since the Presidents Cup in San Francisco the first week of October. That he chose Augusta National to return is not surprising. No other major has greater control of its property, from which fans get weekly badges to the strict decorum (no running, no cell phones). Media credentials are limited, shutting out the celebrity sites that gave Woods the kind of publicity he never imagined.

How he responds on the golf course remains a mystery.

"It will be interesting to see how the other players around him react when his name is on that leaderboard again," Colin Montgomerie said. "It will be very different to see his name up there. He had that aura about him, and it will be interesting to see if other players react differently now, or the same as they did. It will be very exciting times."

Montgomerie played with Woods in the third round of the 1997 Masters, and those were exciting times. Woods shot 65 that day to build an eight-shot lead, and he went on to shatter tournament records with his 12-shot victory.

That sent Woods on his way to becoming arguably the most famous athlete in the world, capable of commanding $3 million fees for playing tournaments overseas. He became the first athlete to top $1 billion in gross earnings on and off the golf course.

That seems so long ago now. Starting Thursday, a new era begins for Woods.

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