John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and

So Tiger Woods will return to competitive golf at the Masters on April 8, 19 weeks after the Thanksgiving night contretemps that led to his admission of marital infidelity and a frenzy of amateur public analysis. "What else should he do?" asked sports psychiatrist Allan Lans. "Drive a bus?"

In his 18 years as the Mets' team psychiatrist, Lans - now a Columbia University psychiatry professor - dealt with all manner of athlete behavior. He worked closely with Met stars Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden in their battles with addiction and, among other knowledgeable observations regarding the disgraced Woods, Lans sees no reason Woods shouldn't be doing what he does best.

"Let's not equate this with someone who has an illness, with whether someone who just comes out of alcohol rehab should go back to being a bartender," Lans said in a telephone interview. He wondered whether the Woods case is a question of sexual addiction - "if there is such a thing" - or "just being guilty of bad behavior.

"And if he wants to refrain from bad behavior, [playing golf] is what he should do. I don't think he should sit around reading Playboy."

Lans, while cautioning that he doesn't know Woods personally, sees a number of familiar elements at work. One is that famous, rich athletes have been unfaithful to their wives countless times through history - and there is both the reality that some jocks chase women and some women "cast themselves at athletes," Lans said.

He reminded that the "only criteria for diagnosis [of Woods' problem] is getting caught," and that part of what is at work is that "a lot of guys might be angry at him that he's blown their cover."

Another factor is that sports, "by their nature, create an imbalance in our view of athletes. Athletes make us feel like children. There's a naivete they produce in us. We want them to be pristine.

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" . . . and I don't want to make the case too strongly, if there's not an element of racism," said Lans of the outrage leveled at Woods.

But for Woods to be returning to competitive golf again while acknowledging that he still is "undergoing treatment," bears no comparison to Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, who competed in the Vancouver Olympics days after her mother's death.

"Especially," Lans said, "because [Woods] is not a victim," while in Rochette's case, "you're a bystander, a victim. That's a real loss."

What is similar, no matter the issues off the playing field, is the ability of elite athletes to compartmentalize. "They have to," said Lans, who admits not to have much interest in golf.

Still, Lans says: "I kind of feel for the guy. He deserves to come back as an athlete without answering any questions. He's obviously trying to restore his life, which is hard to do. But it's hard to put him up there with mass murderers.

"And we love guys who make comebacks. It makes them more human."