Golfers look ahead to Tiger's return

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- The driving range, the putting green, the locker room all were abuzz Tuesday at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, where Tiger Woods once again dominated the proceedings despite his absence.

Woods will not play in this week's Transitions Championship, but he will compete at the Masters in three weeks. His long-awaited announcement came Tuesday morning while players were preparing for the 11th week of the PGA Tour season -- and the 11th week without Woods in a 2010 tournament.

"I must have been the last one to know," said Stewart Cink, the reigning British Open champion. "I was flying down here, and when I got off the plane, my phone about blew up."

There was no shortage of opinions at Innisbrook, but the general consensus was one of acceptance.

"It's good for the game," U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin said. "I'm glad he's coming back."

Said Jim Furyk, "It was going to happen; it was just a matter of when. I think we're all looking forward to business as usual and getting back to normal. It will take at least a few weeks and maybe a few months for that. We'll see. I'm looking forward to not having to talk about it anymore."

By the time Woods tees off at Augusta National on April 8, 144 days will have passed since he last swung a club in competition, at the Australian Masters on Nov. 15. He won his seventh event of the 2009 season and seemed to signify that 2010 would be a big year.

All that changed, of course, with an accident outside his home the morning after Thanksgiving followed by an avalanche of negative publicity and reported affairs. Woods took an indefinite leave. He since has made one public statement but has yet to take questions.

But he said Tuesday that he will return at the Masters, where he won his first major championship in 1997 at age 21 and has gone on to win three more.

"Would it be an unfair expectation for him to win the Masters?" Rocco Mediate said. "I think it's going to be harder than normal because he hasn't played in a while. But I don't think he's going to be out there worried about it. When he won the first year, he shot 40 on the front nine. He came back and won by 12. I don't think there are any unfair expectations."

Mediate knows firsthand how Woods can perform after a layoff. Two years ago, Woods had what was supposed to be minor knee surgery after the Masters. He did not play again until the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines -- and did so even then against doctor's orders.

With a broken bone in his leg -- and reconstructive knee surgery to follow -- he outlasted Mediate, defeating him in a playoff to win his 14th major championship.

"I'm not really surprised," Mediate said. "I just thought maybe Bay Hill. It's easy, it's close. But he may not be ready. I don't know. [Augusta] is the safest place. It's the most controlled place."

No doubt, if Woods wanted to limit the distractions, Augusta National would be the place for a relatively normal return -- if such a thing is even possible.

The tournament has no pro-am; Woods can visit the club before tournament week for practice and not be bothered; the media horde will be no larger than it normally is for the year's first major championship; and fan behavior should not be an issue.

Some have been concerned that Woods will face heckling after he returns. That is not likely to happen at Augusta National, where a patron's badge is like gold. Masters officials can remove any unruly spectators and threaten them with not renewing their badges. That will assure some decorum.

"No way will Augusta National put up with any heckling or stuff like that, so he can go there and play and have it just like normal," said Steve Stricker, who is ranked No. 2 in the world behind Woods. "It's going to be hard. It's going to be hard for him to not only worry about playing but all the hype. It's going to be intensified even more so than it has been. That's why I thought he'd come back for a tournament or two before that to get some of that put aside before Augusta."

Woods said that he is skipping not only next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won six times and the past two, but also the two-day exhibition called the Tavistock Cup, to be played Monday and Tuesday at Isleworth, his home course.

"But what's really to gain there?" said Justin Rose, who plays for Lake Nona in the competition.

"I'm sure he's going to be motivated. I think the best way for him to put all this to bed is to win the tournament."

And now we have three weeks to wonder whether Woods can do just that.

His last Masters victory came in 2005 in a playoff over Chris DiMarco.

Since then, Woods has had a frustrating time at Augusta while contending all four years. He has finished tied for third, tied for second, second and tied for sixth in his past four appearances.

For what it's worth, only one player since World War II has managed to win the Masters playing it as his first tournament of the year: Ben Hogan, who did it in 1951 and in 1953.

"He'd be better prepared if he played earlier, but Tiger is pretty good playing out of the blue, coming out cold," three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. "We won't be thinking his chances … well, they're slightly less, but he's still Tiger Woods."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.