Lusetich: Tiger will return at the Masters

Tiger Woods is set to make his return to tournament golf next month at the Masters.

Despite reports that had him coming back in two weeks at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, has learned that the world No. 1 has decided to forgo a warm-up appearance before the year’s first major.

"(His) first event will be Augusta," a source with direct knowledge of Woods’ plans told

A source close to Palmer told on Thursday that "we have not heard anything" about Woods playing at Bay Hill.

Woods is embarking on a strategy filled with risk. A poor performance at Augusta, perhaps golf’s grandest stage, would only increase the pressure he’s facing in rebounding from a distasteful sex scandal.

Neither has the Masters been a happy hunting ground for him of late. Despite his early dominance, winning three green jackets in six years, Woods has won just once — in a playoff in 2005 — in seven trips to Augusta National and is in the midst of the longest barren streak there of his career — four years without a win.

But on another front, the Masters is an obvious choice: it offers Woods the degree of control he covets.

He will face only the questioning of accredited media — if he even agrees to conduct a press conference. At the Masters, that means mostly domesticated golf writers, not the wild animals of the tabloid press.

The galleries, meanwhile, are the most respectful in golf, so Woods won’t have to worry about hecklers or anything worse than lukewarm applause.

Bay Hill couldn’t offer him the same sort of cleansed environment.

He has not played since allegations in the National Enquirer last November of an affair with New York party girl Rachel Uchitel.

The story, which was not denied by anyone in the Woods camp, led to several days of arguments between the golfer and his wife, Elin, which culminated on Thanksgiving night, when a groggy Woods crashed his car after being confronted by his angry wife. A source close to the situation says Woods had repeatedly denied his infidelities but was awoken by his wife when she’d found incriminating text messages on his phone.

The golfer subsequently went into hiding while his world unravelled around him, more than a dozen women spinning their sordid stories of affairs.

After initially asking for privacy, Woods admitted in a statement posted on his Web site to “indiscretions,” then issued a subsequent statement acknowledging “infidelities” and announcing that he was taking a hiatus from golf.

On December 31, the day after his 35th birthday, Woods checked himself into an addiction center in Mississippi reportedly to deal with his sexual urges. After completing the six-week live-in program, he returned to his Orlando home to attempt to salvage his marriage. He appears to have succeeded.

Woods, who worked his way through a 12-step program familiar to recovering addicts, made an orchestrated public appearance before the cameras at PGA Tour headquarters on February 17 where he apologized for “irresponsible and selfish behavior” but took no questions.

“I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame,” he said.

“I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. I was wrong. I was foolish. I don’t get to play by different rules.”

Woods’ friend, Notah Begay, who was in the audience when he delivered the apology, echoed what many others thought: Woods would be gone from golf for months if not the entire season.

Instead, he completed another week of rehab and returned home with his wife.

He has spent the past week practicing at his home course, Isleworth, where the driving range is located about 50 steps from his front door. His coach, Hank Haney, arrived Sunday night for a few days of intense work. Haney has also rented a house in Augusta for Masters week.

The road to his comeback was reportedly completed with the hiring of former Bush White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer.

Fleischer, a spin doctor with a checkered past, helped Mark McGwire craft the steroid admissions the disgraced slugger made after wanting to return to baseball.

There is little doubt about what the tone of Fleischer‘s advice will be, given the statement on his website that "the way the press treats athletes and sports executives has become increasingly adversarial and conflict-driven."

Woods has lost major sponsors including Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture as well as the goodwill of a public which largely adored him.

If he’s looking for forgiveness, Woods would be better served by getting rid of a consigliere whose stock-in-trade is “acceptable truths” and “plausible deniabilities” for a policy of openness and honesty.

Whether he does so will be evident on Tuesday, April 6 at 1 p.m. That’s when Tiger Woods has always held his pre-Masters news conference.