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Tiger's return to competition still a hot topic

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While U.S. media report that the scandal-hit Tiger Woods is getting treatment for sex addiction, the golfing world continues to speculate on when the game's leading player will return to competition.

Woods has been in hiding since tawdry revelations about his double life led to him admitting last month he had cheated on his wife, and he has given no timetable for his comeback.

The world number one, the greatest player of his generation and arguably of all time, said he would be taking an indefinite break from golf to try to repair the damage he had done to his private life.

After becoming engulfed in a media frenzy following a bizarre early morning car crash that took place outside his Florida home on November 27, the American's squeaky-clean image was torn asunder by allegations of extra-marital affairs.

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.

Although the 14-times major winner usually plays his first event on the U.S. PGA Tour at Torrey Pines in late January, that now seems highly unlikely.

Many pundits have predicted Woods will return to the circuit for the March 11-14 WGC-CA Championship in Miami in Florida while others are banking on him delaying his comeback until the U.S. Masters in April.

Augusta National, permanent home of the Masters, would provide him with the most tightly screened media contingent on Tour, and golf fans are well aware that winning majors has been the driving force in his career.

Players at this week's Bob Hope Classic in La Quinta, California, are eager to welcome back the world's most marketable athlete, although they expressed mixed views over the amount of news coverage generated by the Woods scandal.

"The focus needs to quit being on where Tiger is and when he's coming back and (switch) to who is here and who is playing well," defending champion Pat Perez told reporters.

PHENOMENAL GOLFER

"Tiger will come back. He's going to do what he wants when he wants. When he comes back he's still going to be a phenomenal golfer. His golf record is never going to go away. He's just in a bad spot right now. He'll get it cleaned up."

Ryan Palmer, winner of last week's Sony Open in Hawaii felt the initial interest by players in the Woods sex scandal had markedly diminished.

Fellow American Shane Bertsch, who took a two-shot lead in Wednesday's opening round at La Quinta after firing a 10-under-par 62, disagreed: "I think that guys are talking about it.

"There are different jokes here and there ... most of those are on the internet and people get them on their phone or whatever. I don't really get caught up in it.

"I feel bad for him and his family. Obviously I don't condone what he did, but I want him back out here as bad as anyone does."

Speculation on where Woods has been hiding over the last few weeks has also been rife, although celebrity website radaronline.com appeared to settle that on Wednesday.

The website said the next issue of the National Enquirer would feature photographs of Woods at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The clinic has a sex addiction program known as Gentle Path and two Mississippi television stations claim to have confirmed that Woods has checked in there for treatment.

"Oh, really," Bertsch said when told of Woods' possible whereabouts. "It's amazing that he has stayed hidden for this long. I don't know how he could do it."

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)