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Tiger's return a delicate issue for ESPN, CBS

Photo by Bill Dinicola

Photo by Bill Dinicola

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- When Tiger Woods tees off at the Masters on Thursday, anyone who's watching is already going to know he cheated on his wife. They'll probably know a lot of the unseemly details that go with the story, too.

The challenge for ESPN and CBS isn't whether to address the shocking sex scandal that turned the superstar into tabloid fodder.

It's how to do it -- and how often.

"I don't think it's our intent to dissect, in detail, everything that's going on," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president of production. "Once you hit that event window, our obligation is to focus on the event, and provide context of Tiger Woods and what he's dealing with."

This is hardly the first time sports broadcasters have dealt with a high-profile scandal. In the past year alone, Michael Vick returned to the NFL from federal prison, where he'd served 18 months for his role in a dogfighting ring; Texas Tech played in the Alamo Bowl three days after its coach was fired amid allegations he'd mistreated a player with a concussion; and admitted steroid-user Alex Rodriguez helped lead the New York Yankees to a World Series title.

For sheer public fascination, though, nothing beats the world's best golfer and one-time top pitchman returning to the course after a five-month period that reads like a soap opera plotline: mysterious car crash; tabloid headlines; apology for infidelity; inpatient therapy; televised confession; back to therapy; getting religion; and, finally, back to work.

It's going to be a television event like no other.

ESPN, whose coverage is hosted by Mike Tirico, broadcasts the first two rounds. CBS, with lead anchor Jim Nantz, has coverage Saturday and Sunday. Rest assured CBS is hoping Woods makes the cut, otherwise the massive ratings windfall accompanying The Comeback over the weekend will evaporate.

The network declined to comment on its coverage plans.

"My only prediction is when he comes back, it will be, other than the Obama inauguration, one of if not the biggest media spectacle in recent memory," CBS Sports president Sean McManus told The Associated Press before Woods announced he would make his return at Augusta National.

That kind of attention would thrill the organizers of most golf tournaments. But as everyone knows, the Masters is no ordinary tournament.

The only major championship played at the same course year in and year out, the Masters prides itself on its rich tradition and history. Sarazen, Hogan, Snead, Arnie, Jack -- they all won at Augusta National. Amen Corner, the green jacket and the Eisenhower Tree are landmarks in our sporting history.

Everything about the Masters says class and Southern grace (you'll never see a "patron" running at Augusta National). And the Green Jackets don't want anything -- or anyone -- to become bigger than their tournament.

Not even Tiger Woods.

Augusta National is making a concession and allowing ESPN, which doesn't go on the air until 4 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, to break into its programming for live coverage of Woods' first tee shot. There also will be live coverage on the Masters Web site. But depending on when Woods begins play, ESPN might have very little live coverage of his first two rounds. Tee times for the first two rounds will be announced Tuesday.

"You would be dishonest to suggest it's not a delicate situation for a rights-holder," said Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports. "However, you also have to respect your audience. And that's a balancing issue.

"There's a difference between reporting and commentary," Goren said. "We're not talk radio. Talk radio is commentary. When we're covering an event, we're reporting what is taking place. And I think that's where you find the balance."

Part of that balance is knowing when to cut off the discussion -- and that's the key to handling Woods' return, just as it has been with other scandals.

Take baseball's 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco. Joe Buck and broadcast partner Ken Rosenthal knew they had to address suspicions about career home run king Barry Bonds.

Bonds has denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs. But he has been linked to evidence from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, including positive drug tests.

"Hey look, it's the elephant in the room. Let's talk about it. And we did," said Buck, Fox's lead play-by-play announcer for baseball and the NFL. "(Rosenthal) and I bounced ideas and points off of each other during (Bond's first) at-bat."

But Bonds' at-bat only lasted a few pitches, and Buck said he and Rosenthal found themselves still talking about the slugger when the next hitter was at the plate.

"At some point we had to say, 'Wait a minute, there's another All-Star here,'" Buck said. "Fans are going to say, 'OK, we get it. What's the score?'"

There's been a steady stream of details about Woods' affairs since late November, so much so that most fans no longer can -- or want to -- keep track. While there is sure to be a curiosity factor to his return Thursday, it shifts from his personal life to his golf game.

And that, Williamson said, will be ESPN's main focus.

When Woods tees off Thursday, it will have been 144 days since he last hit a competitive shot. One way commentators will likely address his return is by evaluating the state of his game following the layoff, using his previous extended absences as a comparison.

He missed the cut at Winged Foot for the 2006 U.S. Open after his father died. He won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines two months after surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee. His return did further damage, however, and he missed the rest of the '08 season.

"There's a lot of golf fans who are just excited to have him back," said Greg Bowers, an assistant professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "A lot of people feel they know what they need to know."