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 on Thursday, when ESPN flashed a picture of an airplane that flew over the Masters with a banner that referred to the golfer's active sex life.
If fans in the gallery had opinions about Woods or whether they cared more about his behavior or golf, nothing in the telecasts indicated they were sought out.
Stripping did make it into the broadcasters' conversation, though. Analyst Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters champion, told viewers on Sunday that winner Phil Mickelson had stripped out of his clothes after practicing early Sunday to watch television in his bathrobe.
Mickelson's emotional victory, after which he was greeted by his wife attending her first golf tournament since being diagnosed with breast cancer, gave CBS a feel-good Masters story and a clear contrast to the behavior it chose not to mention.
Woods' demeanor became an issue on Saturday when microphones picked him up cursing following a shot gone awry. Before returning to the game, Woods had promised to curtail what some had considered sullen behavior on the course.
Nantz brought it up again on Sunday, and for the second day in a row, Faldo excused him.
"He has a camera in his face all day," Faldo said. "He has a microphone next to him all the time. That one will be an easy fix."
On Sunday, Woods reacted to a shot he didn't like on the 13th hole by saying, "God, Tiger, Jesus Christ!"
In a post-tournament interview, Kostis asked Woods about his "passion."
"People are making way too much of a big deal out of this thing," he said.
CBS' decision to keep the focus of Woods' return on golf should not have been a surprise; Nantz signaled his view during a talk with reporters three days before the Masters began. "I'm not there to do `Face the Nation,'" he said. "I'm there to cover a golf tournament."
Bryant Gumbel, anchor of HBO's "Real Sports," said in an interview two weeks ago that 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 — and neither want to rock the boat.
"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."