World No. 1 golfer Tiger Woods, who left the game last year in the midst of a damaging adultery scandal, announced on Tuesday he would make his comeback to professional golf at the US Masters in early April.
The return of the world's wealthiest and most marketable sports star at the April 5-11 blockbuster golf event is a relief for his sponsors, whose multi-million dollar commercial endorsements had been rocked by the scandal around him.
"The Masters is where I won my first major and I view this tournament with great respect. After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I'm ready to start my season at Augusta," Woods said in a statement on his website.
The 34-year-old American, whose dominance on the golf course put him in the pantheon of all-time sporting greats since he turned professional in 1996, has won the Augusta Masters four times previously.
"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 awhile since I last played," said Woods.
Woods announced in December he was withdrawing from professional golf to save his marriage after revelations emerged of his repeated infidelity. He has apologized to his family and fans but had not indicated clearly until Tuesday when he might return to the game.
Woods has won 14 major titles and trails only Jack Nicklaus -- with 18 titles -- in the all-time standings. He has long targeted overhauling that benchmark set by fellow American Nicklaus, 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 alleged mistresses 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.
PRESSURE FOR WOODS TO PLAY WELL
He in that appearance that he was sorry for cheating on his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren, with whom he has two small children, and said he was undergoing therapy, but did not give details.
He said then that he planned to return to golf "one day," possibly this year, but didn't specify when.
"I have undergone almost two months of inpatient therapy, and I am continuing my treatment. Although I'm returning to competition, I still have a lot of work to do in my personal life.," Woods said in his statement on Tuesday.
Media reports have said he was treated for sex addiction in Mississippi.
Sponsors, the PGA Tour, and sports pundits and experts welcomed Tuesday's announcement by Woods.
"He certainly has picked a really manageable tournament to re-emerge in and I think if he plays well and is able to align with the pageantry of the Masters, it's a step in the right direction," said David Carter, head of the Sports Institute at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
But he added the pressure would be on Woods to play well and show he has not been affected by the scandal.
A spokesperson for sponsor Gillette said: "Like many sports fans around the world, we're looking forward to seeing Tiger back on the course."
Another sponsor, Nike, said: "We look forward to Tiger's return to the Masters and seeing him back on the course."
"The reason he's playing the Masters is to appease his current sponsors. This was very calculated," said Robert Boland, a sports management professor at New York University.
"A prolonged absence would have been a breach of contract on his part and that's absolutely why he's playing."
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said he was pleased to learn of Woods' intended comeback. "He has invested a lot of time taking steps, both in his personal and professional life, in order to prepare for his return. We all wish him and his family the best as he rejoins the Tour."
There had been intense media speculation that Woods could return at earlier events in Florida later this month.
But he said in his statement on Tuesday: "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."
Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, welcomed Woods' participation.
"Additionally, we support and encourage his stated commitment to continue the significant work required to rebuild his personal and professional life," he added.
Woods, who is believed to be the world's wealthiest sports personality, 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. But other sponsors stood by him.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland also welcomed his return. "We would always want the world number one at the Open and we very much hope he will join us at St Andrews in July," a spokesman said.