Fred Couples chatted about playing a practice round with Woods at Augusta next week. Ernie Els talked about a passing hello with Woods during a practice round Tuesday at the Masters.

Even Tour newcomers like Rory McIlroy, the 20-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland, are weary of the constant chatter about the impact of Woods’ absence and his upcoming return.

“I’ll be happy to have him back so they can forget about this whole thing and get back to normality,” McIlroy said.

Even when he’s not around, Woods is a presence for good, which reflects the hopes that competitors have for his return, and for ill, as in this week’s report on an upcoming Vanity Fair magazine story that promises new, unseemly details about his double life.

“I think everybody here is just glad to have him back,” said Phil Mickelson. “It’s exciting for the game ­— the notoriety, not necessarily from the last few months. But just the fact he’s back playing is going to be great.”

It will be Woods’ first tournament round since his acknowledgement of infidelity to his wife, Elin, and a never-ending string of stories and confessionals by women who said they were engaged in affairs with the golfer.

As has been the case in recent weeks, pros at Redstone were asked about Woods only in a golf context and limited their comments to that area, including speculation on whether he can return and win at the Masters after weeks away from the game.

“He seems to have not had a problem with that in the past, looking at his U.S. Open win in 2008,” Mickelson said. “He had a lot of time off before that, and he came back from being injured and was able to win. He seems to be able to do remarkable things throughout his career.”
‘A good factor’

Els said that based on his brief meeting with Woods in Augusta, it “looks like he’s getting obviously in shape. I think it’s great. You know, obviously, he’s looking forward to it. … He’s got a great record (at the Masters). I think it’s going to be a good factor.”

Couples said he looks forward to playing with Woods on Monday and to seeing how he reacts to his return to golf.

“We all know he made a mistake, and we’ll see how he overcomes it,” Couples said. “I’m a friend of his, not his counselor, but I know at Augusta he’ll be ready to go.”

As chatter increases about Woods’ chances at the Masters, however, word continues to heat up about his indiscretions.

Vanity Fair’s story, written by contributing editor Mark Seal and headlined “The Temptation of Tiger Woods,” features interviews with four women with whom Woods had affairs and includes their allegations that several within Woods’ inner circle, including his agent, Mark Steinberg, knew of his dalliances.

“This is a story all about duplicity,” Seal said on NBC’s Today show. “On one hand, you have a man who’s holding himself out to be a paragon of family values, but he led a secret life.”

The story also depicts Woods as a cheapskate whose only gift for one girlfriend was a Subway chicken wrap and as a profligate spender and gambler in Las Vegas who had fallen under the sway of Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan despite warnings to the contrary.

John Merchant, a longtime adviser to Woods, was quoted as saying of Jordan, “Stay away from that (guy), because he doesn’t have anything to offer to the (obscenity) world in which he lives except playing basketball. Are they (Jordan and Barkley) his black role models? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Not abandoned

Though some sponsors have distanced themselves from Woods, golfers apparently are still standing by Woods. A spokesman for Golfsmith told CNBC this week that sales of Woods-branded Nike Golf product are up 8 percent over the last five months compared with the October 2008 to March 2009 period. Most sales, the company said, occurred during early December when the scandal was at its peak.

“People have not abandoned Tiger as a brand,” Marty Hanaka, Golfsmith’s CEO, told CNBC.

That’s the hope of ESPN and CBS, which will broadcast the Masters next week. ESPN says it will be allowed to air Woods’ opening tee shot live, although most of his opening two rounds probably will be available live only through the Internet stream offered by

Woods’ decision to return at the Masters will provide a measure of control, given the club’s tight controls on spectators and media partners.

“I’m sure he wants it over and done with. And from our perspective, I don’t think it’s going to influence the tournament at all. You know, not in a negative way,” Els said.

All limits are off, however, in the world of the blogosphere and in the realm of talk radio occupied by ESPN Radio personalities Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, who played in the Shell’s midweek pro-am.

“There are some people for whom he will never be as he was before this,” Greenberg said. “I think the majority of people who are making a big deal of this are not golf fans. I think most of the golf world will get past this by the end of the calendar year.

“A lot will have to do with how well he plays and how he handles himself. If he plays well and handles himself well, he can regain his position.”

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