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Tiger's news conference makes this a Masters like none other

If you're curious how Tiger Woods morphed into the sports world's version of the E! True Hollywood Story, the Los Angeles office of Harvey Levin is a good place to start. Levin is the managing editor of TMZ.com, a celebrity website that has proved more difficult for the golfer than any bunker blast from a downhill lie. Staffers of the TMZ newsroom mockingly call themselves members of TNN -- as in the Tiger News Network. The site has published nine Woods stories since April 1 alone, and it's sure to have at least one more after Woods holds a news conference Monday afternoon, his first meeting with a room of reporters in months.

"It is mistake to look at Tiger Woods as a sports figure," Levin says. "He is a celebrity. He is not in the niche of sports. Celebrities can be cooks, actors, musicians, athletes or politicians. Each area has an A-list and a B-list, and Tiger is an 'A' and an 'A' across all categories. He is one of the most famous people on the planet, and people are interested."

That's an understatement. The news conference is scheduled to air live on CNBC, CNN, Fox Business Channel, Fox News Channel, ESPN News, Golf Channel, Headline News and MSNBC among other cable networks. SI.com and Golf.com will have full coverage, including a live-blog of the press conference. CBS and NBC, the PGA's Tour partners, will not air the press conference, though the news divisions of each network have staffers in Augusta, including CBS chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian. ABC News and People Magazine will also send reporters to Augusta.

"As to how we will play the press conference, we have to see what he says," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news. "Tiger's history has been that he's obviously somewhat guarded in what he's saying and does not want to talk specifically about the night [of the accident], the treatment he has undergone and the status of his marriage. I'm sure all those questions will be asked. I'm sure questions about his relationship with Dr. [Anthony] Galea will be asked. If the answers are more revelatory than we believe they will be, it will be a bigger story. But it is a big story nonetheless."

The press interview room housing Woods will hold 180 reporters, with Augusta National officials limiting seating to one reporter for each accredited media outlet, with only a few exceptions. No members of the tabloid press will be there, nor will they get a sniff of the azaleas or dogwoods (at least officially) during tournament week. The Masters credential application deadline passed on Feb. 1 and Steve Ethun, director of communications at Augusta National, told reporters that no additional credentials were allocated.

Three weeks ago, CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus told SI.com in a one-on-one conversation that he believed the first tournament Woods played would be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years. "Tiger Woods is the most famous, most recognized, most accomplished athlete in the world, and his celebrity and prominence is even larger than it was," McManus said. "And whatever he does on the golf course for the first time since Thanksgiving will be of interest to almost every man and woman in this country."

While Monday's news conference should be a circus, there is a consensus among the tournament's broadcasters that the coverage for the rest of the week will be focused inside the Augusta National gates. "I don't think there is a lot of reason to dwell on what has happened in the past," said McManus, "because it is one of the most exploited and overexposed stories in recent memory."

Golf Channel senior vice president for programming and news Tom Stathakes said his network planned to re-air the press conference in primetime Monday night and discuss what Woods says. After that, Stathakes said his network will be about the golf. "If there is a situation that gets out of hand and it's a news story, we have an obligation to cover it," he said. "But we are focused inside the grounds on the tournament and play."

TMZ's focus, of course, will not be on how well Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson are driving the ball. How significant will the site cover the Masters? "I'm not going to say what we are doing or not doing," Levin said. "I don't want to show our battle plans."

But Levin did say he does not expect Masters week to produce much revelatory news about the golfer. "I think there will be a frenzy around him, but I don't think people will get much," said Levin. "What will be eventful this week is the golf course. People who are not interested in golf will be riveted by the game, and I include myself in the ranks. I don't watch golf, but I will watch this tournament."

Col. Gary Powell of the Richmond County Sheriff's office is charged with watching the watchers. The city of Augusta is preparing for additional foot traffic, be it paparazzi, porn stars or pimento cheese sandwich-eating patrons. Powell described the increased attention this year as "a little headache," but added "it will be no worse than when Martha Burk came in 2003."

In 2003, Burk, the then-chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, led a demonstration outside Augusta National to protest the club's male-only membership policy. Augusta residents were much more worried about that situation, according to Scott Michaux, a sports columnist with the Augusta Chronicle since 2001. "With the Burk situation, Augusta wasn't sure what to expect from protesters and there were grossly unfair stereotypes about the city and Southerners being thrown around," he said. "Tiger's story is no reflection on Augusta or the Masters. It merely is adding another layer of anticipation and energy to the tournament."

Michaux said Augusta National has tight control of its perimeter and complete control on site. The club has its own private security firm, Securitas, as well as a group of plain clothes agents working the gallery. Karyn Nixon, a spokesperson for the Augusta Mayor's office, said that she expected Woods to have his own private security detail. "He'll go in and out in an unmarked car and you won't even know he came in," said Nixon. "The way the National is set up, they will protect his privacy the whole time."

The best bet for TMZ or other entertainment outlets to get inside the club would be to purchase badges from the secondary market, such as an online broker. (Four-day badge are being offered for $2,400, according to GoldenTickets.com.) But getting photos of Woods will be difficult. No cameras are allowed on tournament dates (you can bring a camera into the practice rounds) and cell phones are prohibited.

Washington Road, the route into and out of the golf course, is the likely spot for television trucks and paparazzi, but one well-connected Augusta business owner told SI.com that many businesses have refused to sell badges or rent spaces to organizations they thought would besmirch Augusta National's or the town's image. One thing is for certain: Expect plenty of townspeople to get interviewed about the extra media presence. "It's not often I get interviewed by CNN on Easter Sunday," Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver told SI.com.

If there's a wild card among the media, it's the National Enquirer. The tabloid initiated the media frenzy when it published a story on Nov. 25 alleging Woods had been seeing a New York nightclub hostess. Then came the early-morning crash two days later outside his Orlando-area home, when he suffered minor injuries after striking a fire hydrant and a tree with his Cadillac SUV. SI.com's calls to executive editor Barry Levine were not returned by press time, but Levine told ESPN's E:60 program that "Tiger Woods is a global celebrity, but he wasn't the type of individual we followed. He's not Brad and Angelina. He's not Oprah. He's not out like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan at the clubs. The fact is Tiger has always led a relatively squeaky-clean lifestyle... so when that first tip came in to us in September that he was involved in an extramarital affair, certainly it kind of caught us by surprise."

"This has all the elements of a real-life soap opera," Levin told ESPN. "It has sex, love and betrayal. It has remorse, it has stakes, and it has sex, money and good-looking people. It is mystery with twists and turns -- the perfect soap opera. It is a big story for us and a big story for everyone. If anyone says it's not, they're lying."

Powell said his office has fielded calls from both TMZ and the syndicated TV show Extra asking about the security of the event and where they could set up. "We told them where they could be -- public property and that's it," Powell said. "We've heard they will be here and we've prepared for them, but I don't think it will be as bad as everyone is picturing it. I hope it ain't, anyway. You know, it will be nice when this will just be a golf tournament again."

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