By Jeff Labrecque
Updated March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Tiger Woods announced on March 16 that he would end his five-month exile from golf with the Masters tournament beginning April 8, the event’s slogan — ”A Tradition Unlike Any Other” — took on a whole new meaning. In an instant, the prestigious competition, held annually in Augusta, Ga., since 1934, went from a courtly gathering of men in ugly pants to a significant mainstream moment, with something of a carnival atmosphere injected into the event. ”I had been in a meeting during Woods’ announcement,” says Augusta-Richmond County mayor Deke Copenhaver, ”and when I came out, TMZ was on hold.”

Woods’ news represented a new phase in his image rehabilitation, followed by two brief interviews on March 21, one with ESPN and another with the Golf Channel. Woods appeared apologetic if rehearsed on camera, discussing his renewed commitment to Buddhism, his late father, and his excitement about playing at Augusta. ”I did see the old Tiger emerge when we spoke of him getting back to the golf course,” wrote the Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman, who conducted one of the interviews. ”The golf course is a sanctuary for him.” At the very least, Woods, who dressed as if he’d just walked off the 18th green, looked like ”Tiger,” rather than the humbled schlemiel who wore a schoolboy blazer for his cringe-worthy Feb. 19 public apology.

Since driving his SUV into a tree last Nov. 27, Woods has been embroiled in scandal. Even as he attempts to keep his marriage together, the relentless drip-drip-drip of humiliation continues. Just last week, one of his many purported mistresses released sexually graphic texts he allegedly sent her, and on March 17, South Park skewered the golfer and his sex addiction in an episode that drew nearly 4 million viewers.

Despite Augusta National Golf Club’s reputation as a bastion of crusty Southern elitism — it’s still a men’s-only club and didn’t accept an African-American member until 1990 — the fact that Woods & Co. elected to stage his return there was hardly a shock. Not only has he won the Masters four times already, in 1997, 2001, 2002, and 2005, but the privately run event provides something that no other tournament can: a cocoon of privacy. Tickets have long been sold out (though still available through online brokers for upward of $600 per day), and the deadline for media credentials passed in February, which will keep the media frenzy at least somewhat at bay.

The other advantage of the Masters is simply its good manners. If the barely audible ”golf clap” was not invented at Augusta, it certainly was perfected there. The mere possession of a cell phone or a camera is grounds for ejection and the permanent — i.e., lifetime — loss of credentials. Since Masters tickets are not sold directly to the public, but instead made available only to an exclusive list of Augusta ”patrons,” the organizers can typically rely on the gallery to police itself. ”To yell out the name of a mistress to Tiger Woods during his backswing and lose that [ticket] privilege for the remainder of your life just seems like a pretty large risk,” says golf writer Jason Sobel. ”There’s going to be a zero-tolerance policy, or something very close to it.” A spokesman for the tournament declined to comment on security plans. Copenhaver, whose sheriff’s department lends a hand to the tournament’s private security detail, says, ”Not much has changed with regard to preparations this year, [but] we’ll make any necessary adjustments that we need to throughout the week.”

The Masters is perennially golf’s most watched television event, and Woods’ presence, should he qualify for weekend play, will likely boost ratings to well above the previous one-day golf record of 20.3 million viewers, set during Woods’ first Masters victory in 1997. If he is on the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon, some predict that CBS’ final tally could top 25 million — a figure on par with an NFL playoff game.

Unfortunately for CBS, the extra eyeballs won’t translate into huge ad revenues. Its unique deal with the Masters permits only four minutes of commercials per hour. In fact, it was the Masters, not CBS, that negotiated commercial agreements with its three sponsors (IBM, AT&T, and ExxonMobil), so the network will have to settle for squeezing in an occasional self-promo for shows like CSI.

Ongoing scandal or no, Woods is still the most famous athlete in the world, about to walk onto the grandest stage in his sport. The Masters will be brilliant 21st-century theater: Sinatra’s Main Event concert at Madison Square Garden crossed with Pee-wee Herman’s post-arrest comeback at the MTV Video Music Awards (”Heard any good jokes lately?”). Even if he wins, Woods might not hear a roar from the crowd, but after spending almost five months as a pariah, he might appreciate a few golf claps. (Additional reporting by Tanner Stransky)

Viewer’s Guide
Get ready for The Masters!
The tournament runs April 8–11. Here’s how you can see it.

In person
Masters tickets are the holy grail of sports passes, since they’re available only to an elite list of patrons. If you’re just an average fan, your best bet is to go through online brokers.

ESPN will cover the first two days, but Woods’ rounds might not fit neatly into its broadcast window. CBS takes over on the weekend, with a focus on the leading players.

Online will stream an extra hour of competition each day before TV coverage begins. It’ll also select a group of high-profile golfers to follow daily on the back nine. — JL