By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tiger Woods's comeback at the Masters golf tournament gave ESPN the highest U.S. audience ever for a golf event on cable TV, as 4.9 million tuned in to watch on Thursday, the network said.
The cable television sports network, owned by the Walt Disney Co, said on Friday that the audience was a 47 percent increase from 2009 when 3.4 million viewers watched the first day of the Masters.
Analysts had expected viewership to rise because of public interest in Woods stemming from his admitted marital infidelity. The telecast surpassed a 2008 U.S. Open Championship playoff, also on ESPN, that drew less than 4.8 million viewers.
"There obviously was a big buildup to his return to the tour, and it brought in a much larger audience beyond the core golf fan," said Dave Nagle, a spokesman for ESPN.
The four-day Masters tournament, which is one of the major events of the annual U.S. golf tour, runs through Sunday. CBS will broadcast the Masters this weekend. ESPN aired it Thursday and Friday.
Woods has won the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, four times, but this year's event took on heightened interest as it marked the married golfer's return to the game, after announcing in December that he would take a break from competition following media revelations of his extra-marital affairs with women.
Thursday's large audience was still only a fraction of the 20.3 million viewers CBS drew when Woods won his first Masters in 1997. But CBS is a major network, and weekend viewership of the sport will almost always be much higher given much of the golf audience is working during the weekdays.
OUT OF THE WOODS?
If comments posted on social networking websites are any indication, Woods may soon be out of the woods when it comes to his image problems.
Research firm Viralheat said 70 percent of comments about Woods on such websites Thursday were positive. Similar trends were seen earlier this week, the firm said.
"He's not pure as the driven snow anymore, but he's still a great golfer," said Cooper Lawrence, author of "The Cult of Celebrity." "He didn't cheat on us, he cheated on his wife -- frankly it's none of our business that way."
When ESPN broke away from regular programing to show Woods teeing off at the Masters at about 1:40 p.m. EDT (1740 GMT), its viewership for that hour more than doubled to 0.8 percent of households in major U.S. cities, ESPN said.
Around that time, more than 17,500 comments mentioning Woods were posted on the website Twitter.com, the tracking firm Trendrr said. Nearly 11,000 Twitter comments were made when Woods gave a news conference Monday.
Celebrity websites such as TMZ.com devoted more attention to the spectacle surrounding Woods than his play.
But Bob Thompson, a TV expert at Syracuse University, noted that ESPN's coverage of the Masters gave little mention to Woods' affairs, and that fact lessened its appeal for a big segment of the audience.
"Usually this kind of thing would have been exploited to the hilt, and this time it wasn't," Thompson said. "The way this is being covered is less a concentration on the soap opera and more on the kind of yeoman duty of playing a game golf."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Philip Barbara)