Record TV audience expected for Tiger Woods return

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The record number of viewers who may watch Tiger Woods tee off at the Masters this week will hear less about his sex scandal than his quest for another coveted green winner's jacket.

Media industry watchers said if Woods plays well, ESPN and CBS could exceed the biggest single day television audience ever, more than 20 million viewers, for a golf tournament. The event starts on Thursday and runs through Sunday.

When Woods appeared at a news conference on Monday, social networking website Twitter logged 11,000 comments during the one-hour event, tracking firm Trendrr said.

Television research firm Nielsen did not measure the TV audience for the news conference, but massive crowds turned out at the course in Augusta, Georgia, to watch him practice.

Woods' return following a self-imposed exile since he admitted cheating on his wife and entered rehab for sex addiction provides plenty of potential drama for networks. But they plan to focus on the golf, not the sex scandal.

Media coverage of Woods' affairs with women began surfacing around Thanksgiving last year, when he crashed his car.

In December, he said he would take a break from golf to focus on his family. Masters viewers will not see Woods' wife, Elin Nordegren. He has said she will not be at the Masters.


CBS, a unit of CBS Corp. will cover the tournament over the weekend, while ESPN, a division of The Walt Disney Co. will show the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday.

"It's definitely a boon for ESPN in the early rounds because there will be far more interest in how Woods does, having been off for so long," said Larry Gerbrandt, principal with consulting firm Media Valuation Partners.

Concerning advertising revenue, the networks are limited to the four-minutes of air time per hour long ago assigned to sponsors by tournament officials.

The most watched Masters in at least 30 years came in 1997, when 20.3 million viewers tuned in to watch Woods win the tournament for the first time, Nielsen said.

Second was 2001 when Woods won again and 19.2 million viewers watched. He has won two additional times.

Last year, ESPN averaged 3.4 million viewers for the two days. The network will have to attract viewers many of whom will be working during the day, but it plans to use to reach some of that audience.

CBS also plans extensive Web coverage. The TV audience size will depend on whether Woods makes the cut and advances to the weekend's final rounds, analysts said.

"You can certainly expect a spike of perhaps up to 50 percent in viewing if he's making one of his classic charges," said Brad Adgate, of media buying firm Horizon Media.

Woods' return to Augusta on Monday for the first official day of practice drew galleries more typically seen for the final round of a major championship.

Security was tight, as is always the case at the Masters, and there was no heckling for the world No. 1, who attracted respectful but subdued applause.

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Alan Elsner)