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Masters stage for return of the Tiger

By Karl MacGinty

Tiger Woods will end his self-imposed exile from professional golf at Augusta National next month, ensuring the 2010 US Masters will become one of the greatest sports spectaculars of all time.

He’s back: recently practiced at the Isleworth club near his home in Florida

Tiger's comeback will rival that of legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali as the world tunes in to see the greatest-ever golfer faces the most harrowing challenge of his career.

Woods announced the end of his self-imposed exile from the game on his website yesterday.

In his statement, he thanked Augusta National “for their support” adding: “The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect.

“After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I'm ready to start my season at Augusta. 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's been a while since I last played.

“I have undergone almost two months of impatient 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.”

Can Woods go into a Major Championship ‘cold' and still win?

If he did, it would make even his astonishing US Open victory at Torrey Pines in 2008, when Woods overcame the agony of a severed knee ligament and two leg fractures, seem like a walk in the park.

And at one stroke, it would re-establish Tiger's damaged status as a sporting legend.

So it's all or nothing for Woods at Augusta.

The decision to make his tournament comeback at the Masters must be one of the most sensible Woods has made since the infamous night of November 27, when his private life started to come crashing down around him.

There is no more controlled or pristine environment in elite world sport than the US Masters, where spectators are required by rule to respond in a positive manner to every competitor under a strictly-enforced code of conduct. Failure to observe this code leads almost certainly to a lifetime ban from the event.

Only once before has Woods gone into a Major Championship with as little preparation — after taking a nine-week break from the game following the death of his father Earl in May 2006, Tiger returned to action at the US Open in Winged Foot, missing the cut for the first time as a professional in one of golf's Grand Slams.

He vowed never again to be so poorly prepared for action on golf's most demanding stage yet by doing so now, Tiger has shown commitment to his family, said Ireland's triple-Major Champion Padraig Harington last night.

“Tiger needs to get back to the golf course to bring balance back to his life,” said the Dubliner.

“I think the fact that he is not coming out and playing before the Masters means he's placing emphasis is more on his family than on his golf.

“Clearly he'd be more competitive if he did play before the Masters. I think he's well capable of winning but it is harder to win when you haven't been playing and haven't been competitive.”

Harrington certainly assured Woods of a very warm welcome to the locker room in Augusta, saying: “The players just want to see him back and there's no issue there.

“In fairness to the Masters, it was there before Tiger and it'll be there after him.

“While there will be an extra bit of media attention on Tiger, I think it just shows the stature of the event that it will be well capable of handling that.”

It came as no surprise when Augusta National chairman Billy Payne's responded positively to yesterday's announcement which is sure to provide massive media interest: “We support Tiger's decision to return to competitive golf beginning at this year's Masters Tournament.”

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