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Tiger Woods ready to step into the unknown at Augusta

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - All the hype and speculation about Tiger Woods will begin to ebb away when the scandal-hit world number one makes his long anticipated return to professional golf in Thursday's opening round at the U.S. Masters.

The 14-times major champion has not competed in almost five months since his spectacular fall from grace and no-one, Woods included, knows how he will fare in his first tournament back.

Woods enjoys a huge comfort level at Augusta National where he has triumphed four times but his emotional state of mind is likely to be an unknown factor on the golf course this week.

Although by some distance the greatest player of his generation, he has not competed since winning the Australian Masters on November 15 following startling revelations about his serial philandering.

Woods is scheduled to tee off in the second-to-last group with fellow American Matt Kuchar and South Korean KJ Choi on Thursday when hordes of fans and media will be closely monitoring his form.

Fellow American Phil Mickelson, a twice champion at Augusta, expects the game's leading player to cope with the distractions and intense scrutiny.

"From a player's point of view, we expect to see the same player that we have always seen," left-hander Mickelson told reporters on Tuesday.

PLAYING WELL

"He had not touched a club in a while, nor played in a while and he was injured. And yet he came back and he won."

Three-times major winner Padraig Harrington felt the unraveling of Woods's private life would have no long-term influence on his golf career, and perhaps not even this week.

"I think most players would see what went on in Tiger's life as his personal side, which has no real bearing on his golfing life," the Irishman said.

"Now, we don't know what sort of bearing it's going to have in the short term. He could be incredibly stressed."

Asked if he would surprised to see Woods contending on Sunday, Harrington replied: "No. He's favored to win the tournament and those guys who set the odds know a lot more than I do.

"I would not be surprised at all if he was contending and I would not be surprised if he played better golf than ever, but there's obviously a doubt to that. We will only be able to find that out on Sunday evening."

If Woods performs well at Augusta, media industry watchers have predicted the U.S. television audience could exceed more than 20 million viewers.

BIGGEST EVENT

CBS news and sports president Sean McManus recently said this year's Masters would be "the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years".

While the return to golf by Woods has totally overshadowed anything else likely to happen this week, several other players have the credentials to win the prized Green Jacket.

South African Els, a three-times major winner, is also one of the hottest players in the game having won twice in his last three PGA Tour starts.

"He's been playing some incredible golf ... and to see him cap it off with a couple of wins is exciting for the game," Mickelson said of the smooth-swinging Els.

"He is a big name and big draw and people want to see him play well and people pull for him to play well."

Other likely contenders on an Augusta layout running fast and firm after several days of intense heat include Britons Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, American Steve Stricker and double U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa.

(Editing by Ian Ransom)