* Woods ready to return at Masters
* World number one continuing therapy after sex scandal
* Sponsors and golf officials welcome comeback (Adds further reaction, detail)
By Mark Lamport-Stokes
INDIAN WELLS, California, March 16 (Reuters) - Tiger Woods will begin trying to restore a reputation battered by marital infidelities at next month’s U.S Masters, the tournament which helped him become the world’s most marketable sportsman.
The world number one has not competed since his victory at the Australian Masters on Nov. 15 and has opted to make his comeback at Augusta National where he won the first of his 14 majors in 1997.
“I view this tournament with great respect,” Woods, 34, said in a statement on Tuesday as he announced his hotly anticipated return to the PGA Tour. “After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I‘m ready to start my season at Augusta.”
The American, whose golfing dominance has placed him in the pantheon of all-time sporting greats since he turned professional in 1996, has won the Masters four times.
”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.
“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,” he said.
The return of Woods to the genteel surrounds of Augusta National, where he last triumphed in 2005, will be one of the biggest sporting events of the year.
Asked whether any extra contingency plans would be made, a Masters official told Reuters: “We’ve recently learned of this ourselves so I’ll be better equipped to answer those specifics some time soon.”
Despite not having hit a ball in competition for four months, Woods has already been made a firm favourite to win the April 8-11 Masters with British bookmakers William Hill installing him at 4-1.
“If he wins the Masters, it will not be a surprise to me,” said American Rocco Mediate, who was beaten by Woods in a 19-hole playoff for the 2008 U.S. Open where the world number one played with a double stress fracture in his left shinbone.
Former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk added: “You never bet against him. He seems to be able to take a bunch of time off and pop right up there and be the same old guy.”
Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, competing at this week’s Tampa Bay Championship, expressed surprise that Woods was not playing a warm-up event before the Masters.
“I would have played at least once before Augusta,” Karlsson said. “But he’s very, very precise and ... he usually has a plan on what he’s doing.”
Woods announced in December he was taking an indefinite break from the game to save his marriage after revelations emerged of his repeated infidelity. He has apologised to his family and fans but had not indicated until now when he might return to golf.
Woods trails only Jack Nicklaus, who has 18 titles, in the all-time major standings and has long targeted the benchmark set by his fellow American who was his golfing idol as a child.
The scandal around Woods erupted after he crashed his car outside his Florida home in the middle of the night in November, a bizarre incident that triggered a storm of media speculation over his private life.
The minor accident led to a parade of women alleging publicly they had had affairs with the golfer. Last month, Woods made a carefully managed first public appearance since his spectacular fall from grace.
He said he was sorry for cheating on his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren, with whom he has two small children, and that he was undergoing therapy.
“I have undergone almost two months of in-patient therapy, and I am continuing my treatment,” Woods said on Tuesday.
The impending return of Woods has been warmly welcomed by golf officials and sponsors, especially since the world number one’s absence from events where he usually plays generally drives down television ratings by 50 percent.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said: “He has invested a lot of time taking steps, both in his personal and professional life, in order to prepare for his return.”
Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters tournament, added: “We support and encourage his stated commitment to continue the significant work required to rebuild his personal and professional life.”
A spokesperson for sponsor Gillette said: “Like many sports fans around the world, we’re looking forward to seeing Tiger back on the course.”
Woods, who is believed to be the world’s wealthiest athlete, was estimated to earn about $100 million a year in endorsement deals before the scandal led AT&T and Accenture to drop him as a spokesman. Other sponsors, however, stood by him.