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Tiger Woods' return to golf at this week's Masters could not only rate as golf's biggest event ever. If the embattled golfer manages to win, it might rank among the biggest media events of the decade, experts said.
Coming off months of tabloid headlines parsing his admitted affairs with multiple women, Woods is facing the unenviable task of not only improving his public image, but also showing he can still play the game at the highest level.
All that should make for compelling television.
From die-hard fans to gawkers simply curious to see how the man behind the sordid headlines fares on the links, this year's Masters is drawing an unusual level of interest -- and the "Tiger bump" seems to be having a hefty impact.
"If Tiger is in contention on Sunday, that alone puts the tournament in the running for the highest-rated Masters ever," said Robert Seidman, a television ratings analyst and editor of TV By the Numbers."If it looks like Tiger is going to win, it'll definitely be the highest-rated Masters."
If that happens, Woods would only be beating himself -- he already owns the record for the most-watched golf event of all time.
About 14 percent of all TV households watched as Woods won his first green jacket at the 1997 Masters, according to Nielsen. Four years later, when Woods won again, the Masters won a 13 percent household rating.
Woods' return to golf is "surely music to the ears of ESPN and CBS, the two networks providing live coverage for this year’s tournament," according to a Nielsen statement. "And while Nielsen does not project future ratings, there are some past indicators that could make this year’s Masters a record-breaking event."
CBS, which is broadcasting the final rounds of the tournament from Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday and Sunday, is expecting Woods' presence to take their broadcast beyond just sports and into the stuff of legend.
Woods' comeback could challenge the inauguration of President Obama as the "biggest media event" of the past 10-15 years, Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, told Sports Illustrated.
Seidman was slightly more sober -- but also optimistic -- about Woods' ability to boost ratings, saying the golfer's presence is typically "ratings gold for any tournament" and the dramatic return from a personal scandal will draw "people who never cared about golf at all and are now going to be at least a little bit curious."
Interest in Woods also sparked a temporary frenzy for passes to the tournament and its practice rounds, bringing a hubbub of activity to the sport known for its quiet claps and hushed crowds.
Sales of the coveted badges multiplied by five on the day Woods announced his return. Traffic to ticket-broker Web site StubHub shot up 70 percent, according to Glenn Lehrman, a spokesman for the company.
"You don't generally see one individual have this kind of effect on a particular event," Lehrman said. "Teams like the Cowboys, Yankees or Lakers have that draw when they advance through playoffs, but it's rare with an individual athlete."
Still, the stench of scandal may be tempering a total manic rush for tournament tickets.
Lehrman said the average badge price increased only 10 percent after Woods confirmed he was playing and that the mad dash for passes "gradually tapered off." Woods' absence at other major tournaments this year only reduced ticket sales by 5 to 10 percent.
Seidman noted that when pre-scandal Woods suffered a major injury in 2009 and took nearly a year off, ratings plummeted nearly 50 percent. This year, after Woods announced he was taking a break from golf, veiwership at major tournaments has been down just 11 percent, according to Nielsen.
But Seidman noted that despite the figures, ratings couldn't soar without golf's biggest headline-maker.
"It'll be interesting to see if more people will be watching if he doesn't make it to the final rounds," he said. "I don't expect that to happen.
"It takes him being in contention on Sunday," Seidman said, "to have a realistic shot of breaking ratings records."