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Questions swirl as Woods prepares to return at Masters

Crank the chirping birds, flash the colorful azaleas and cue Jim Nantz's hushed tone.

This week, the event like no other will be like no other Masters.

Tiger Woods returns to competition for the first time since his SUV hit a fire hydrant Nov. 27, uncorking a flood of personal indiscretions.

When he announced March 16 that he would make his return at Augusta National, the toughest ticket in sports got even tougher.

Woods has returned from long layoffs at major championships twice before. He missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after his father's death. And at the 2008 U.S. Open, he notched one of his greatest wins, going 90 holes with a torn knee ligament.

"He seems to have not had a problem with that in the past, looking at his U.S. Open win in 2008," said Phil Mickelson, longtime rival of Woods. "He's been able to do remarkable things throughout his career."

So how will Woods respond coming back with a fractured personal life?

He's one of the most focused athletes in the world, capable of stopping his swing halfway through after detecting a camera click.

But his scandalous behavior has changed how the public views him. He's bound to be booed, which is unfamiliar territory for the four-time Masters champion.

"I'm a little nervous about that, to be honest with you," Woods told ESPN in one of two interviews March 21.

Another point to consider is how much time Woods has spent preparing for this. He's been working with instructor Hank Haney for several weeks and has played numerous practice rounds at Augusta. Practically every player who has gone to Augusta on scouting trips has seen Woods there.

"He looked good," Hunter Mahan said with a smile. "I think he'll be ready next week."

Veteran John Cook said Woods looked in prime form during a recent practice session at Isleworth Country Club near Orlando, Fla., where both are members.

"There are guys like John Cook saying Tiger is playing the best golf he's ever seen; he's going to win hands down," said England's Paul Casey, ranked fifth in the world. "I think guys are very much focused on their own game. That golf course, as beautiful as it is, can be fairly relentless, so I think that's what guys are focusing on."

Woods' form is one of many questions hovering over the world's No. 1 player. He has left countless questions unanswered, and details from reported affairs continue to surface.

Given that all the networks went live with Woods' 13-minute public apology six weeks ago, his news conference today at Augusta could generate Super Bowl-type ratings.

Everybody else will drive down Magnolia Lane under the radar. Players say that aside from the pre-tourney buildup, it will be business as usual at Augusta National.

Ernie Els, a two-time winner during Woods' hiatus, was critical of Woods' upstaging the WGC Match Play and the Transitions Championship with his previous media events. He said last week that he has no problem with this one.

"I think it's going to be fine," Els said. "I think most of the serious golf journalists will be there. There will be some other journalists from the underworld, but it will be controlled pretty well. It will be an interesting day. I'm sure he wants it over and done with. And from our perspective, I don't think it's going to influence the tournament at all, not in a negative way."

Given the scope of Woods' misdeeds, fans will not be holding a Tiger pep rally at Augusta. Some doubted the sincerity of his apology, discounting it as rehearsed.

In a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken March 19-21 with 1,030 adult Americans, only 43 percent had a favorable opinion of Woods. In similar polls in 2000, 2001 and 2005, Woods' favorable rating ranged from 84 percent to 88 percent.

"There will be a lot of viewership because of Tiger's return," said Sam Chapman, chief executive officer of Empower Public Relations.

"But the dignity of the Masters may be at stake with the buzz around Tiger and a sex scandal."

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