Tiger circus ready to descend on Augusta National

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - The Tiger Woods circus rolls into Georgia amid much hype and speculation for next week's U.S. Masters where the disgraced world number one will make his highly anticipated return to competitive golf.

The 14-times major champion has selected the best possible environment at Augusta National for his PGA Tour comeback but no one, Woods included, knows how he will fare in his first tournament back after a break of almost five months.

Although he enjoys a huge comfort level at a venue where he has triumphed four times, he has not competed since winning the Australian Masters on November 15 following startling revelations that he had a string of extra-marital affairs.

While his golfing abilities and mental strength are the best of his era and arguably of all time, his emotional state of mind is likely to be an unknown factor when Woods tees off in Thursday's opening round.

South African Ernie Els, who has won his last two events on the PGA Tour, expects the game's leading player to cope with the distractions and intense media scrutiny at the Masters.

"Tiger is just a different player," the three-times major winner told reporters in the build-up to the year's first major.

"He's the one guy who probably could make (next week) a success. But it'll be tough."

Woods said last month he was apprehensive about the reception he will get from the fans at Augusta following his stunning fall from grace at the end of last year and efforts to salvage his marriage to his Swedish wife Elin.

UNPRECEDENTED HEIGHTS

While global media interest in the Masters is certain to reach unprecedented heights, Els had no concerns the April 8-11 event would be adversely affected.

"From our perspective I don't think it's going to influence the tournament at all, not in a negative way," he said. "I think it's going to be fine."

For British Open champion Stewart Cink, next week's Masters will rank as the most extraordinary of all, given the wide range of Woods storylines.

"It's going to be one of the biggest events in golf history," the American said.

"It will also end up being a great tournament because he will probably end up in the mix. It'll be really compelling."

Television ratings should be back to their best and possibly beyond for what CBS news and sports president Sean McManus recently said would be "the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years."

Woods is ideally suited to the par-72 Augusta layout, which was stretched to a formidable 7,445 yards for the 2006 Masters, making it the second-longest course in major championship golf at the time.

The 34-year-old American is among golf's biggest hitters, has a superbly creative short game and is arguably the best putter of all time from inside 15 feet.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Augusta's biggest challenge comes on the slick, severely sloping greens and Woods has become well acquainted with their nuances since making his Masters debut as an amateur in 1995.

Suggestions Woods might struggle to shake off the rust in his game after his self-imposed exile are scoffed at by compatriot Cink.

"We're talking about Tiger Woods, the best player that's ever played golf," he said.

While the PGA Tour re-appearance of Woods will overshadow anything else likely to happen next week, several other players have the credentials to win the prized Green Jacket.

Other likely leading contenders include three-times major winner Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Britons Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, American Steve Stricker and double U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa.

(Editing by Tony Jimenez)