Even Augusta National may not pull Woods back to the game

Tiger Woods' statement has been discussed and dissected. But for the questions that it vaguely addressed, more remain:

When might he come back? The Masters, which he has won four times, in April? What must he do before then? When he returns, will he resume the domination that made him the world's first billion-dollar sports figure?

Assuming his issues have been put to rest and the relationship with his family has been repaired, local golf pros said Woods will return when he thinks he can win and won't let an event or venue dictate his schedule, even one with the emotional pull of Augusta National.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if he didn't play in the Masters," British Open champ and Duluth resident Stewart Cink said. "I know it seems like the end all to play in a major like the Masters. But when you're a golf pro, your family takes precedence.

"I think it would be a difficult place to come back to play. That's not where I would come back. It's a media fishbowl."

Woods has been invited to play in the Masters, which will tee off with the first round April 8. Unlike PGA Tour events, which have a entry deadline of the week before, Woods could announce the week of the Masters that he is going to compete.

Jeff Paton, who coaches PGA players Troy Matteson and Roberto Castro, said he would be surprised if Woods missed the event, where he has won more than $6 million, because he has so much history there. It's where he burst onto the world scene with a 12-stroke win in 1997. His length off the tee, coupled with improvements in equipment technology, forced changes that some say transformed Augusta National from a shotmaker's course into a bomber's course.

"I learned one thing with the ones who are just different -- they are better," said former PGA player Joe Inman, who now coaches golf at Georgia State. "They have a mind-set: If they are there, they think they can do it. If they think they can do it, I'm not going to argue with them."

Woods has won 71 times on the PGA Tour, including 14 majors, four short of the record held by his idol, Jack Nicklaus. He didn't win a major last year, the first time that has happened since 1998. He has said in the past that the only way a golfer is defined is by how many majors they win.

So Paton said if Woods decides to play in the Masters, he might compete in the Tavistock Cup or Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando the month before to shake the rust off. The added benefit is at both events the media and galleries can be tightly controlled. Cink said he could see Woods playing in either event.

But saying one is coming back and actually competing are different things. Because Woods isn't overcoming an injury, his skills likely haven't diminished. Playing a couple of events would help him sharpen the intangibles that it takes to win on the course, things that can't be honed on the driving range, Cink said.

The biggest challenge, Paton and Inman say, will be mental.

If Woods truly is satisfied that his relationship with his wife and children is on the mend, and that he has overcome the issues that caused him to lose millions in endorsements, he should come back with a sharper focus than he has ever had.

"There's not much left that he can be worried about," Paton said. "I expect him, with his focus ability, to come back and dominate."

However, if his apology was hollow, and instead of being truly sorry, he's really only sorry that he got caught, then Inman predicts he's going to have some difficulties.

"That's the $64,000 question: Does he really feel bad?" Inman asked. "Does he really want to change his behavior? I don't know. I think it's all in the person."

During his statement Friday, Woods said that he was headed back to a rehab clinic Saturday and that he will one day return to golf, though he's not sure when.

It has been four months since Woods played a competitive match -- the World Golf Championship HBC event in November, where he finished sixth. But he has taken long breaks before and come back with varying degrees of success. After winning the 2008 U.S. Open in June, Woods underwent knee surgery and sat out the rest of the season. He didn't return until March 2009 and won his third tournament, the Palmer event at Bay Hill.

The pros say the PGA Tour needs him back. There were 21 satellite TV trucks at his news conference Friday, including media from Finland. His presence at a tournament usually doubles the TV ratings. Weekend ratings decreased by an average of 46.8 percent for events he entered in 2007 but missed in 2008 because of his knee injury.

"He's the face of the sport and has been for the last decade," East Lake Golf Club head pro Chad Parker said. "He's good for the game."

Only Woods knows when he will step between the ropes again. But Cink said nothing Woods does on the course surprises him anymore.

"I'll put it his way: I would be surprised if he played the Masters first. I wouldn't be surprised if he won the Masters."