By Tim Gaynor
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Superstar golfer Tiger Woods set no date for his return to competition on Friday, keeping sponsors and fans in a waiting game as he apologized to his family and fans for cheating on his wife and said he was continuing to get treatment.
"I do plan to return to golf one day. I just don't know when that day will be. I don't rule out that it will be this year," Woods said in his first public appearance since revelations of repeated infidelity caused his spectacular fall from grace late last year.
Woods, a 14-time major champion whose image was squeaky clean until the scandal over his private life erupted, apologized repeatedly for what he called his "irresponsible and selfish behavior."
"I was unfaithful, I had affairs, I cheated. What I did was not acceptable and I am the only person to blame," Woods said. "I brought this shame on myself."
He said he had undergone 45 days of therapy and had "a long way to go" in repairing his personal life, adding that he would be returning to a treatment center, which he did not identify, starting on Saturday.
Woods, who was wearing a blue blazer, a pressed blue shirt and no tie, spoke in measured and solemn tones as he delivered a prepared statement to the group of about 40 people in the room.
There had been speculation that the 34-year-old American, whose dominance of the golf course put him in the pantheon of all-time sporting greats since he turned professional in 1996, might announce a date for his return to golf. His absence from events at which he usually competes generally drives down television ratings by 50 percent.
His comments appeared to suggest that he would miss the first major tournament of the year, the U.S. Masters in Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of April. The Masters is the blockbuster golf event for sponsors and worldwide television audiences.
"BIG QUESTION MARK"
But PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who praised Woods for taking what he described as "a good step" toward his return to public life, said there was no rush to get him back to professional competition.
"We're supportive of whenever he comes back, whether it's three weeks from now or three months from now," Finchem said. "That's less important than when he comes back. He's prepared to play to resume his career in a positive way so that he's there for the long haul."
Woods defended his wife and denied media speculation that there had been physical violence between the couple. The speculation arose after a bizarre minor car accident in November outside the Woods' Florida home in the middle of the night.
"Elin never hit me that night or any other night, he said. "There has never been an episode of domestic violence in our marriage, ever."
He gave no account of what happened. It was that accident that snowballed into tawdry revelations about his personal life. Numerous women claimed to have had affairs with Woods in the days that followed.
Woods also did not give details of his therapy. Media reports have said he was treated for sex addiction in Mississippi.
Woods, who has two young children with Elin, did not take questions after his statement. But six-time major winner Nick Faldo of Britain, who credited Woods with making "a complete apology," said he had also left a "big question mark" about when he would return to the fairways.
"We've had an apology but as golfers we're almost still back at square one," Faldo said. "I'm surprised. This is a man who was one of the mentally strongest players on a golf course and for him not to be able to sort it out ... he's implying he's going to come back completely differently."
Woods, who is believed to be the world's wealthiest sports personality, was estimated to earn about $100 million a year in endorsement deals before the scandal led AT&T and Accenture to drop him as a spokesman.
Other sponsors and organizers offered words of support on Friday.
Like Faldo, Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University, said Woods was not yet out of the crisis.
"It established boundaries for how he will return and may help him reestablish his brand effectively ... I think this crisis can't really blow over until he returns and plays golf," Boland said.
"Sponsors are asking themselves, 'If he's not playing golf, why are we in this relationship?'"
He suggested a renewal of his faith would help play a part in getting his life back on track.
"FOLLOWING EVERY IMPULSE"
"Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security," he said. "It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint."
Woods had been widely advised by his peers and public relations experts to make a public apology before returning to competition, many of them suggesting he should go even further by appearing in a television interview.
But his mother, speaking to reporters at the clubhouse after Woods spoke, said he had been singled out for unfair criticism and media scrutiny.
"As a human being everyone has faults, makes mistakes and sins. We all do. But, we move on when we make a mistake and learn from it," she said.
(Additional reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Whistler, Canada and Phil Wahba in New York; Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Frances Kerry, David Storey and Bill Trott)