For a decade or so, the greatest hazard in golf has not been Rae's Creek or any lake, river or chasm. The most penalizing pitfall has been saying something bad about Tiger Woods.

Any little negative comment about his swing could get a television analyst (Peter Kostis, Jimmy Roberts) frozen out, and not being able to talk to Woods meant you were done. Any saucy jibe (Stephen Ames) or perceived disrespect (Rory Sabbatini) from a fellow golfer brought steely stares, biting sarcasm or ostracism.

Tour player Brad Faxon, a friend of Woods, wrote in a generally supportive first-person story for Sports Illustrated this week that many PGA Tour members were afraid to approach Woods for an autograph that could help their favorite charities.

Woods was so popular and powerful that the unwritten first rule of golf was, "Do not criticize or in any way ruffle him."

That was the world Woods left last November, a world that crashed with his SUV outside his Orlando-area home. The world that he will publicly re-enter at the Masters this week is the polar opposite. This is the world still stirring with reports of his admitted infidelities. This is the world in which he has gone from an untouchable icon to an international punch line, one of the swiftest, most sweeping reputation transformations in modern American life.

How he deals with it in his return from exile (and treatment) to golf, beginning with his first news conference tomorrow, will make this year's Masters possibly the most widely watched golf tournament ever. How will he do and how will this new world respond?

"I'm a little nervous about that, to be honest with you," he told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi in one of his first two five-minute interviews March 21. "It would be nice to hear a couple claps here and there."

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Golf observers familiar with the decorum of Masters spectators believe his reception at Augusta National will be positive, and definitely not shrill. "The Masters is less of a one-person draw than other events," said Brendan Ross, president and CEO of razorgator.com, which specializes in selling hard-to-get tickets.

After Woods announced he would return at the Masters, Ross said, "We saw a brief surge in sales. But then the surge settled down. Our theory here is that everyone already knew he was coming back."

The tournament's controlled environment will block out the attention frenzy he would be bound to attract anywhere else. Still, even at the event known for its green sandwich wrappers (so they won't be obtrusive if they do happen to fall to the ground), Woods is bringing his own huge baggage.

Fellow golfers have taken verbal shots, starting with Jesper Parnevik regretting having introduced Woods to the Parneviks' former nanny, Elin Nordegren. Tom Watson said Woods needs to be better behaved on the course. Ernie Els called him "selfish" for making his public apology during a big tournament (Els last week backed off that remark).

That is nothing compared to the torrent of tabloid covers, celebrity TV series segments and late-night talk show jokes. Woods' life became a Saturday Night Live skit after the scandal broke on Thanksgiving night. Even his apology was skewered on South Park.

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It is all greatly at odds with the self-image of a golfer whose relationship with Nick Faldo turned icy when the latter, in a TV booth, once critiqued just one of Woods' swings.

Or is it? "In the past, the criticisms have been about his performance, largely, and thus I think the bristling was the idea that the media or anyone else would know what was good for him in that regard," Mark Aoyagi, an expert on sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, wrote in an e-mail. "I think in this case, he essentially agrees with the criticism, or at least understands that it is generally justified."

Aoyagi said that starting this week, the focus will be back on performance. "The story is now golf,'' he said, "and not sex."

The CBS ratings could very well soar because the public wants to see if he can overcome this personal calamity the way he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg.

What seems sure is that this will be a watershed week for Woods. And at an event that is billed as "a tradition like no other," this will be a Masters like no other.