* EA features Augusta National in Tiger Woods video game
* EA banks on Woods comeback for stronger game sales
* Sales of EA's Tiger Woods game down 50 percent-analyst
By Liana B. Baker
NEW YORK, April 8 Golfers worldwide want a shot at Augusta National Golf Club -- but what about gamers?
Electronic Arts Inc ERTS.O, hoping to revive its golf video game franchise, is featuring the famous course for the first time in "Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 12: The Masters," giving sports and video game fans a chance to compete on a virtual version of Augusta National.
At the Masters this week, EA has launched an all-out marketing blitz for the new game, including showing clips of the game in the tournament's merchandise pavilion.
That follows a 30-second television spot EA began running late last month that resembles an advertisement for the Masters, showing a regular guy playing at the tournament with narration by sports broadcaster Jim Nantz.
Craig Evans, the director of marketing for EA Sports, said he is now hoping a thrilling, closely contested tournament will keep viewers at the edge of their seats and generates even more interest in the course, which has hosted the Masters since 1934.
"It helps if you have a great tournament this weekend that that goes down the wire," Evans said, speaking from Augusta, Georgia.
The EA golf franchise, which has generated $671.3 million in revenue for the company since its debut in 1998, according to market research firm NPD, has seen its popularity wane in recent years. Analysts blame the decline on the fortunes of Tiger Woods, for whom the EA golf game is named after.
"Tiger's fall from the leader boards contributed to declines in game sales," said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter, who estimates that game's sales have dropped 50 percent from levels seen in 2006-2008.
Tying the game into the Masters was a savvy marketing move, Pachter said, especially because it created some distance from Woods, who has lost sponsors and fans over troubles in his personal life.
EA's Evans said sales from week one were "excellent" and he expects the game to do better than last year, but he declined to give specific projections.
Wedbush's Pachter said he expects the game to sell 20 percent to 25 percent more than last year, while Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia predicts a 10 percent bump.
EA said it would love Tiger to do well at the Masters to boost the game's profile, and analysts have said the company will probably stick with the highly recognizable Woods for years to come, barring a complete meltdown this season.
"Don't expect EA to ultimately ditch Tiger Woods, because let's face it, even a losing Tiger is still more popular than whoever is winning in golf," said Jesse Divnich, an analyst with video game market research firm EEDAR. (Reporting by Liana B. Baker, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)