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Wounded Tiger lies low, no timetable for return

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

KAPALUA, Hawaii (Reuters) - For the second year in a row, Tiger Woods will be a notable absentee from the early part of the PGA Tour schedule but this time it is entirely due to self-inflicted wounds by the world number one.

After becoming engulfed in a media storm following a bizarre early morning car crash that took place outside his Florida home on November 27, Woods finally admitted he had cheated on his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren.

Woods, the greatest player of his generation and arguably of all time, announced last month he would be taking an indefinite break from golf to try to repair the damage he had done to his private life.

The world's best known and most marketable athlete had previously carved out a squeaky-clean image of excellence, which has since been sullied by allegations of multiple extra-marital affairs.

A 14-times major winner, Woods has given no hint as to when he might return to competition. He usually plays his first event on the U.S. PGA Tour at Torrey Pines in late January but that now seems highly unlikely.

Publicly embarrassed and exposed by the tawdry revelations about his double life, Woods is almost certain to lie low for as long as possible.

He could return to the circuit for the March 11-14 WGC-CA Championship in Miami in Florida but many pundits are banking on him delaying his comeback until the Masters in April.

Winning majors has been the driving force in his career and Woods has long targeted the record 18 piled up by his childhood idol Jack Nicklaus.

The Masters, the first of the year's four majors, takes place at Augusta National from Apr. 8-11 and Woods would hate to miss out on an event where he is a four-times champion.

FALL FROM GRACE

Only Woods can know when he will be ready to face the golfing public and the media following his stunning fall from grace, with sponsors and organizers having to count the days before his return.

A year ago, Woods was still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and his eagerly awaited return to competition came a full eight tournaments into the 2009 season, ending an eight-month hiatus.

Television ratings for tournaments where Woods usually plays slumped by almost 50 percent, causing advertising rates to fall, and there was also a sharp decline in on-course attendances.

Last month, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem tried to play down fears the sport would suffer from Woods's absence.

"I'm not saying that I think everything is fine," Finchem said during a conference call.

"We're in a down economy, it's harder to sell and having the number one player in our sport not play is not a positive thing. It does hurt television ratings."

However, Finchem added: "If Tiger is out for a couple of months or eight months or a year, we're going to have a successful year.

"It won't be at the same levels without our number one player ... but I think the doom and gloom needs to go away."

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)