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Master Tiger back in golf

WHEN William Makepeace Thackeray visited Augusta, Georgia, in the middle of the 19th century he described it as a small, snug town. It is still small but it is hardly likely to be snug in a little more than three weeks when Tiger Woods makes his much-awaited return to professional golf to compete in the US Masters.

Augusta National has seen a few things in the time it has staged the first of the year's four major championships, but nothing like the clamour for tickets and buzz of expectation there will be in the days leading up to next month's Masters.

Although ex-US President Dwight Eisenhower was a regular and President Bill Clinton also played there, both requiring extra protection, the security when Woods makes his reappearance will be enormous.

Companies will surely be falling over themselves to try to place advertisements in the telecast, and tickets on the black market should change hands at record prices.

Sean McManus, the head of news and sport at CBS, the US television network that transmits the Masters, predicted that Woods's comeback would be the second biggest media event in the past 10 years -- after the inauguration of Barack Obama.

McManus pointed out that Woods's television apology last month was watched by an estimated 20 million viewers and said: "It is hard to overestimate how much interest there will be.

"Tiger Woods is the most famous, most recognised, athlete in the world and his celebrity is even larger than it was.

"When you look at the fact that he gave a very simple press statement with no questions and every broadcast and cable news network in America carried it with great interest, I think that is an indication that whatever he does has enormous interest." It was at Augusta in 1997 that Woods won his first major championship -- by a record 12 strokes -- and that event attracted 43 million TV viewers, so there is some symmetry in Woods choosing it as the place for his comeback.

The tournament has a reputation for eschewing the unseemly. It refers to spectators as patrons, once banned a TV commentator for referring to spectators as hordes and prohibits patrons from running on the grounds.

"It's probably the most controlled atmosphere you can have," 2003 US Open champion Jim Furyk said.

"Journalists are different there, fans are well behaved because everyone's afraid they will lose their tickets. Everyone is in awe of that place."

Whether the world No1 will do a tell-all television interview before the Masters remains to be seen. It is also uncertain how Woods will be treated by his fellow professionals and how his demeanour will have changed since his last professional appearance, the Australian Masters, back in November.

"When I do return, I need to make my behaviour more respectful," he said in his apology last month.

"The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect," Woods said in a statement meant to defuse some of the attention surrounding his return.

"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 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 that the Masters would be the earliest I could play."

Only time will tell whether Augusta, which likes to portray itself as a peaceful southern city, will feel like thanking Woods for making his return there. "I brought away 60 guineas for two hours' talking, a snug little purse from snug little Augusta," Thackeray wrote 154 years ago. Woods will do a little better than that this year.

┬ęThe Times, London