MIAMI (Reuters) - Tiger Woods said on Friday he would take an indefinite break from professional golf, admitting he cheated on his wife and bowing to the pressure of two weeks of frenzied media scrutiny of his private life.
The world's No. 1 golfer made the stunning announcement in his latest posting on his website in which he confessed "infidelity" for the first time, said he was sorry and asked his family, friends and supporters for forgiveness.
Woods, 33, one of the most admired sport personalities on the planet and the married father of two young children, had previously owned up only to "transgressions" in response to multiple media allegations of numerous extramarital flings.
The allegations followed a bizarre, minor early morning car accident outside his Florida home on November 27 that rapidly ballooned into a full-fledged sex scandal that turned his previously unblemished life and career upside down.
"I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children," said Woods.
His previous perfectionist image was a magnet for lucrative sports sponsorships and endorsements, and according to Forbes magazine, he was the first athlete to earn $1 billion, making him one of the world's wealthiest sports figures.
"After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person," Woods said.
"I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I've done, but I want to do my best to try," he added.
The announcement by the greatest golfer of his generation left the world of professional golf reeling, although his closest collaborators expressed understanding.
"The entirety of someone's life is more important than just a professional career. What matters most is a young family that is trying to cope with difficult life issues in a secluded and caring way. Whenever Tiger may return to the game should be on the family's terms alone," his agent and friend Mark Steinberg said.
Although Woods' major commercial backers and sponsors -- which include PepsiCo's Gatorade, Procter & Gamble's Gillette, Electronic Arts and Nike -- have up to now stood by him, Steinberg acknowledged the golfer's announcement could affect his business relationships.
"Of course, each sponsor has unique considerations and ultimately the decisions they make we would fully understand and accept," he said.
One company, AT&T, said it supported Woods' decision and "our thoughts will be with him and his family". But it added, "We are presently evaluating our ongoing relationship with him."
Woods has been far and away the top draw on the PGA Tour. He is chasing Jack Nicklaus' record for victories in major tournaments and the unofficial title of best golfer ever. He has won 71 times on the tour in a spectacular career that includes 14 major wins.
But PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem expressed sympathy for the reasons behind his decision to take a break.
"His priorities are where they need to be, and we will continue to respect and honor his family's request for privacy," Finchem said.
"We look forward to Tiger's return to the PGA Tour when he determines the time is right for him," he added.
It was the early hour and circumstances of the November 27 car accident and Woods' refusal to answer police questions, followed by reports he had argued with his wife that night, which triggered worldwide speculation about his personal life.
Woods suffered facial cuts and bruises in the one-car accident, in which he hit a water hydrant and a tree.
The Florida Highway Patrol has closed its investigation into Woods' accident after issuing a ticket to him for careless driving and saying no criminal charges would be brought.
His Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren, told police she pulled him from the crashed car after using a golf club to smash a window. Woods has paid his $164 traffic fine.
As the scandal over his private life unraveled, more and more U.S. and British tabloid newspapers and media websites published comments from and photos of a parade of between eight to 12 women, including cocktail waitresses and porn stars, who claimed relationships with Woods.
The media scrutiny prompted Woods to seek and obtain a British court order banning publication in Britain of any photos or video showing him nude or having sex.
A letter from the lawyers accompanying the injunction contains a statement that "this Order is not to be taken as an admission that any such photographs exist."
Some media outlets have speculated Woods and his family may try to escape the glare of public attention by going on a cruise in his luxury motor yacht, or moving to Sweden, his wife's home country.
But some public relations experts predicted Woods may find it difficult to deflect the media attention, despite his announcement on Friday.
"What he wants to do is make the story go away," Howard Bragman of public relations agency Fifteen Minutes told CNN.
"It may be a good life strategy, it may save his marriage ... (but) there is no place he can go to get away from this," Bragman said.