Master of deception: Tiger Woods ready to play after controversial Nike ad

In this image provided by Nike Inc., Tiger Woods appears in a Nike commercial to air starting Wednesday, April 7, 2010 on ESPN. In the stark, black-and-white ad, Woods looks directly into the camera without speaking while a recording of his late father is heard, speaking about taking responsibility. (AP Photo/Nike)  NO SALES

In this image provided by Nike Inc., Tiger Woods appears in a Nike commercial to air starting Wednesday, April 7, 2010 on ESPN. In the stark, black-and-white ad, Woods looks directly into the camera without speaking while a recording of his late father is heard, speaking about taking responsibility. (AP Photo/Nike) NO SALES

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — He's gotten a scolding from the head of Augusta National and heard the words of his late father in a television ad, lecturing on the virtues of responsibility.

For Tiger Woods, it could take years to know if he's done enough right things in his personal life to become something more than a bawdy punch line.

But when it comes to how well he'll hit a golf ball after laying low for five months, that answer comes Thursday.

Woods will play his first competitive round since that Thanksgiving night crash changed everything, revealing a supposed role model who was having numerous extramarital affairs. He couldn't have picked a bigger stage to start rebuilding his life — at least the part of it that involves a ball and club.

He'll be returning from one of the longest layoffs of his career when he plays at, of all places, the Masters.

An early afternoon tee time with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar will launch what figures to be one of the most scrutinized opening rounds in golf history — not a day for winning the tournament, but surely a chance for Woods to show he's still an intimidating presence on the course, if not the same man off it.

"The fact that I haven't really played at all, that's a little bit concerning," Woods said early in the week. "I'm hoping I get my feel back quickly, my feel for the game, my feel for shots, feel more how my body is reacting and what my distances are going to be. I hope I get that back, you know, relatively quickly. Maybe, hopefully, the first hole. But if not, please hope it's the second hole."

But first, he had to endure another critical assessment of the double life he was leading, this time from one of golf's leading officials: Augusta National chairman Billy Payne.

"It is simply not the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here," Payne said Wednesday in a surprisingly frank dressing-down of Woods at the annual state of the Masters news conference. "It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children."

They were the strongest words from a Masters chairman since Hootie Johnson's famous "point of a bayonet" reply to Martha Burk in the summer of 2002 when he defended the club's right to an all-male membership.

Payne was one of the Augusta National members who stood among the Georgia pines to the right of the first fairway on Monday, the first time Woods played before a gallery since being caught cheating on his wife.

"Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes," Payne said. "But certainly, his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."

A few hours after Payne spoke, Nike released a stark, black-and-white TV ad that showed a solemn Woods, looking directly into the camera while the voice of his father is heard, speaking about taking responsibility.

"Did you learn anything?" says Earl Woods, who died in 2006.

"I hope," Payne said, "he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile."

There surely will be plenty of smiles when Jack Nicklaus joins his old rival, Arnold Palmer, to hit a ceremonial tee shot for the first time, kicking off the tournament shortly after sunrise.

"We'll have fun and we'll both belt it out there about 150," the 70-year-old Nicklaus quipped.

Then, it'll be time to turn it over to the guys who can hit it a lot farther.

No one will be under more scrutiny than Woods, the four-time champion and No. 1 player in the world. No one ever earned so much money playing a game. After winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, it's hard to find anyone who took as mighty a tumble as Tiger.

"He should do pretty good — he's coming off a win," Robert Allenby cracked.

Woods appeared to be as interested in his behavior as his performance during the practice rounds. He was smiling more, making eye contact, even signing autographs.

Payne declined to discuss what type of security was in place, nor was he overly concerned that the return of Woods might overshadow a tournament that attracts the largest golf audience of the year.

"We are very secure in who we are, and the Masters has almost now a 74-year history," Payne said. "We just kind of do things our way. We are not threatened by other big news stories or things like that."

Even so, there has been little attention on anything else this week.

Ernie Els, the only player with multiple PGA Tour victories this year, was not invited to the media center for a pre-tournament interview.

Steve Stricker is No. 2 in the world, with four victories over the last year putting him among the best players who have never won a major. He was introduced at a news conference Tuesday as an eight-time PGA Tour winner who has played on three Presidents Cup and one Ryder Cup team and is making his 10th appearance in the Masters.

Anything missing?

"A major," he said. "Is that the way I'm supposed to answer that?"

There are four teenagers in the field, and three Italians, but only one 60-year-old. Most of the old champions have faded away, with Raymond Floyd heading to the sideline two days before the start of the tournament. The 67-year-old didn't even bother with a couple of farewell rounds.

Not that anyone would have noticed.

This tournament is all about Woods, and the chance to start anew.

Payne certainly hopes he takes it.

"We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past," he said. "This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances."

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