CHICAGO (Reuters) - Tiger Woods return to pro golf for the Masters tournament next month is being celebrated by more than fans as EA Sports will launch the final commercial version of its online golf game named after the world's top golfer that week, the company's president said on Wednesday.
Peter Moore said the Electronic Arts Inc unit had planned the launch of the browser-based game, now in beta testing where consumers play at no cost, at a time when golf be the top thing on the mind for many consumers.
"It's more than serendipity," Moore told Reuters at the IMG World Congress of Sports in Los Angeles.
"That's when people start thinking golf," he added. "It's the first major."
Woods said on Tuesday he would return to play at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, on April 8-11. Woods had taken a leave from the sport after an early-morning car accident near his home in Florida in November that led to him acknowledging marital infidelities. Last month, he apologized to fans and speculation had mounted as to when he would return to the sport.
EA Sports, along with Nike Inc, has been strong in its support of Woods despite the scandal. On the other hand, Accenture Plc, AT&T Inc and PepsiCo Inc's Gatorade all killed the sponsor deals, while other firms stopped using him in their marketing.
Before the scandal broke, Woods earned an estimated $100 million a year from his sponsorship deals.
Moore said the final version of the Woods' online game would be launched in conjunction with a mostly online advertising campaign. He said consumers have been playing more than 40,000 rounds a day of the test version of the game.
"We're excited that it works out very well for us," he said. "It's kind of the future of where we see some of the game experiences going."
The final version will still include a free-to-play element, but also will layer on such things as subscriptions, microtransactions or low-cost purchases of items, advertising and possibly downloads, Moore said. He declined to reveal costs for consumers.
EA Sports, which generates about 30 percent of the parent company's overall revenue, also remains on track for the June launch of its Tiger Woods console video game in June, he said.
Moore said it was too early to say whether Woods' return has led to an increase in online play or pre-orders for the console game, which will be available on Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation3 and iPhone platforms.
EA Sports signed a sponsor deal with Woods in 1997 and introduced 12 versions of the console game bearing his name. Analysts have estimated the Woods' console games sell about 2 million annually, generating about $80 million in net revenue.
Others were celebrating Woods return as well.
"Of course, we're glad that one of the greatest golfers of all time is going to be back playing at one of the greatest sports venues in the world," George Pyne, president of IMG's sports and entertainment business said at the sports conference. "That's where Tiger Woods belongs is on the golf course." IMG represents Woods.
"Obviously it would be incredible drama if he wins or does quite well," Pyne added.
He declined to speculate whether the public would be supportive of Woods upon his return, but said current sponsors will not abandon the golfer based on one event. "I don't think one day or four days or one event are going to make or break anybody."
Stephen Master, vice president of Nielsen Sports, said the Tiger Woods story line will hog the spotlight next month, at least in the beginning.
"He's got to make the cut," he said. "It will all be about him on Thursday and Friday, but as everyone knows the real golf starts on the weekend."
Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Bernard Orr