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Sources: Woods likely to return at Masters

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the

Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during the second round of the Tour Championship golf tournament at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. (September 25, 2009) Credit: AP

Tiger Woods' return to golf is near, perhaps as early as next month at the Masters, the tournament that launched the historic career and luminary life that he is trying to restore.

Two sources told The Associated Press Thursday that Woods is likely to play first at Augusta National in the major championship he has won four times.

The AP report, citing two people with knowledge of his plans, said Woods is likely to stay out of golf at least until the Masters. Earlier in the day, the New York Post reported that Woods is likely to return for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament at Bay Hill in Orlando, near Woods' home.

According to the sources quoted anonymously by AP, Woods is not likely to be in the field March 25 for the Palmer tournament. He has until 5 p.m. a week from Friday to enter that event because golfers must register the Friday before tournament week.

During his recent public apology, Woods said he will return to golf and did not rule out returning this year. He was no more specific, possibly because he was not sure and possibly because he did not want to undermine the gravity of his statement. The uncertainty has led to wider speculation about when he will come back to golf for the first time after a personal-life scandal that began with the crash of his SUV late on Thanksgiving night.

The Post reported that Woods has hired Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush's former White House press secretary, to give public relations advice. Fleischer told The Associated Press that he could neither confirm nor deny any connection with the golfer.

Woods has been practicing on the driving range at Isleworth, the Orlando-area golf development in which he lives. People there also confirmed that Woods' swing coach, Hank Haney, was there last weekend to work with him, fueling the speculation.

Coming back for a major championship has its risks. Woods returned from a hiatus after his father's funeral in 2006 and went directly to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot; he missed the cut. But Augusta National is one of his favorite and most comfortable environments. As a 21-year-old, he became the youngest Masters champion in 1997, securing the first of his 14 major titles.

The Masters has a permanent media facility and strict rules about credentialing that would blunt a last-second rush from gossip papers and Web sites that might want to follow Woods' comeback.

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