NEW YORK – As applause followed Tiger Woods on his walk to the 18th hole at the Masters on Sunday, CBS' Jim Nantz remarked that the contained environs of the tournament made it the right place to return to golf.
He found friendly television networks, too.
CBS, even more than ESPN during the first two rounds, was determined not to talk about the humiliating sex scandal that kept Woods away from the game for five months. It was a hiatus. It was a self-imposed absence. It was time off. It was time spent away. It wasn't a life spent in the bunker as examples of boorish behavior kept spilling out.
The networks acted under the assumption that you knew all of that coming in, and if you wanted to hear more, you could turn elsewhere. Indeed, a celebrity Web site was reporting on the whereabouts of Woods' estranged wife just as the golfer was making that walk.
"Say what you will about Tiger the person or Tiger the brand. Tiger the golfer is still exciting," said CBS' Peter Kostis, during an inconsistent round where Woods mixed some spectacular shots with an ugly three-putt from 6 feet.
His return was a definite television event. ESPN reached nearly five million viewers with its first day of coverage, the biggest audience a cable network has ever gotten for golf, and about a million less the next day. Preliminary Nielsen Co. estimates indicated CBS' rating for Saturday's third round was 33 percent more than the comparable time last year, but it wasn't record-setting. CBS had better ratings for its Saturday Masters coverage in 1997 and 2001, when Woods won.
The clearest reference to Woods' off-course problems came Thursday, when ESPN flashed a picture of an airplane that flew over the Masters with a banner that referred to the golfer's sex life.
Bryant Gumbel, anchor of HBO's "Real Sports," said two weeks ago having television networks pay organizations like the Masters for broadcast rights to their tournament sets up a situation where both are partners in seeking profit.
"Do you really think when we watch the Masters that Jim Nantz is going to harp on Tiger Woods' troubles?" Gumbel said. "I think not."