[PHOTO AT LEFT - TIGER WOODS (Courtesy of his Website at: http://web.tigerwoods.com/index

NEW YORK, MARCH 17, 2010 (STAR) (AP) Tiger Woods' return to the golf course is a long-awaited boon to sponsors that stood by him and marketers who stand to get big exposure from the big Masters audience.

Woods dropped out of the golf world last December after revelations of his infidelities made him a mainstay of lurid headlines and left his value as an advertiser in shambles. Several of his sponsors, including accounting firm Accenture and telecommunications company AT&T, dropped him. But companies that banked more directly on his athletic prowess, such as Nike Inc. and Electronic Arts, stuck by him.

The payoff could be coming.

"He starts the journey back now," said Rick Burton, former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a sports marketing professor at Syracuse University. "Instead of being tabloid fodder for his non-athletic activities, he goes back to what he started out to be, which was an athlete."

Both Nike and Electronic Arts said in written statements on Tuesday they look forward to seeing Woods return to golf. It's especially timely for EA, whose next edition of the video game "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" is in testing and scheduled for release in June.

"Nike can probably imagine nothing better than Tiger coming back, withstanding the pressure of everyone watching him and winning," Burton said. "This is going to be a heavily photographed, heavily videotaped, heavily Youtubed appearance. Tiger's Nike hat, Nike shirt and Nike ball are all going to get a lot of visibility."

Gillete, a unit of Procter & Gamble, said it has no immediate plans to change its advertising which no longer features Woods. Damon Jones, a spokesman for Gillette, said there have not been any decisions made about what comes next with the company's advertising.

The Masters get the best TV ratings of any golf tournament and will likely be much more watched this year maximizing the impact of his return.

The tournament itself has just three major corporate sponsors IBM Corp., AT&T Inc. and ExxonMobil Corp., though tight control of the tournament keeps their logos all but absent from the course. AT&T, a former sponsor of Woods himself, declined to comment and the others did not immediately respond to requests.

While most golf events allow sponsors to put their logo on nearly every surface and host exhibits on the course, the Masters is nearly devoid of visible corporate presence. Commercial time is extremely limited for the Masters. Between two days representing nearly 8 hours of coverage last year, there was about 36 minutes of commercials, according to Nielsen.

"It is the cleanest venue you'd ever see," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at University of Oregon. "The absence of corporate monikers is pretty striking for the NASCAR-ization we see in sports today."

It probably doesn't matter how well Woods even plays.

"When it comes to his brand it is irrelevant how he does," said John Sweeney, director of sports communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

He said the companies that have stood by him will continue to, but it will be be a while before he can lure any new sponsors.

"He is now a soap opera character in the tabloid reality show," Sweeney said.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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