- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A humbled Tiger Woods said Monday that he was touched by fans and fellow golfers welcoming him back to the sport, but he confirmed that his wife, Elin, would not be among his supporters at this week’s Masters Tournament.

Facing more than 200 reporters at a specially arranged Augusta National Golf Club news conference, Mr. Woods said that while he was returning to golf “with a lot of support” from his family, “Elin is not coming this week.”

Except for two quick one-on-one sessions, Mr. Woods has avoided the press since Nov. 27, when an auto crash outside his Florida home uncorked tabloid revelations of extramarital affairs that drove the world’s most famous athlete and pitchman into seclusion and a stint in a rehabilitation program.

On Monday, Mr. Woods spoke at length to reporters for the first time since, taking more than 30 questions in a half-hour session that wasn’t nearly as contentious as some had predicted.

Wearing a white “Tiger Woods” hat and a white Nike shirt and sporting the beginnings of a goatee, he looked tired but collected as he answered a variety of questions, referring to many in the room by their first names.

He apologized specifically to his fellow PGA professionals, who, he said, have been “bombarded” by questions about his absence and the sex scandal. Mr. Woods has been linked in tabloids to more than a dozen women, including prostitutes, but has acknowledged only that he cheated on his wife of 5½ years.

“Hopefully, after today, the players can be left alone to focus on the Masters,” he said.

Talk of Mr. Woods and the sex scandal has dominated the golfing world during the four-time Masters champion’s self-imposed five-month exile. For his fellow golfers, Mr. Woods’ return is seen as a chance to finally turn the page.

Jim Furyk, who hit practice balls on Sunday with Mr. Woods, said “generally, it’s nice to have him back.”

“I can’t wait until he’s out here, and I don’t have to answer any more questions about him,” he told the Associated Press.

Mark O’Meara, who also practiced with Mr. Woods, said the game needs its biggest star.

“Listen, I love the kid. I understand what happened, and it’s not a good thing that has happened,” he told reporters in Augusta. “It doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s my friend, and I care for him. It’s like I told him out there, ‘This is the place where you belong. This is what you love to do.’ And he does. He loves to compete and play. So it’s good to have him back.”

Mr. Woods said he was pleasantly surprised at how warmly he had been received in Augusta by his fellow golfers — and by the estimated 500 fans who greeted him at a practice round earlier in the day.

“On that first tee, I didn’t know what to expect. … For them to still cheer for me is just incredible,” he said. “Today touched my heart pretty good.”

Mr. Woods said he returns to the tour with a new respect for the game and wants to do a better job of “acknowledging fans.” He signed autographs after Monday morning’s practice round — a rare move for him.

“I haven’t done that in the last few years, and that was wrong of me,” he said. “I’ve underappreciated the fans.”

Augusta National is a tradition-centered institution, and the fans have a reputation as knowledgeable and restrained — an ideal environment to make a comeback on the field while avoiding tabloid-style criticisms or distractions. There were no boos and even a smattering of “Get ‘em, Tiger” yells during Monday’s practice round.

Ever the competitor, the 14-time major-tournament champion said he was confident about his chances at Augusta, the site of his first such win, in 1997.

“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “I’m going to go out there and try to win this thing.”

Nevertheless, he emphasized several times during the session that he intends to keep golf in perspective.

“Winning golf tournaments is irrelevant, considering the damage I did to my family,” he said. “I need to be a better man going forward. If I win more championships along the way, so be it.”

Mr. Woods, 34, has refused to discuss in detail the crash of Nov. 27, the revelations of extramarital affairs that followed or his 45-day stint in rehabilitation, and he did not offer much new information Monday.

Asked why he entered rehab, he said simply, “That’s personal,” though he did say that it had changed him.

“I can’t go back to where I was. I want to be a part of my son’s life and my daughter’s life,” he said. “My dad — it’s amazing how things he said come back — he said, ‘In order to help people, you have to learn how to help yourself.’”

He acknowledged that in the past he had taken Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, when his father died, and Vicodin, a prescription painkiller, while recovering from knee surgeries. But he said he was not addicted to the medications and that his stint in treatment was not related to either drug. He also specifically denied taking human growth hormone or any illegal drugs.

Asked whether he’d been taking sleeping pills on Nov. 27, he said curtly: “The police investigated the accident, and they cited me 166 bucks.”

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