(Source: Associated Press)

Television viewership will fall without Tiger Woods, but the networks that air the sport and the PGA Tour itself can handle the setback.

That’s the word from several media analysts and the president of CBS Sports, which now is facing the possibility of covering the Masters Tournament just weeks from now with golf’s biggest start conspicuously absent.

“We’re all looking forward to him coming back, but until then we’re doing perfectly fine,” said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports.

When Woods made his globally televised apology last Friday for serial infidelity, he said that “I do plan to return to golf one day, I just don’t know when that day will be.”

The statement leaves Woods with no deadline – so what will happen to the audience if he stays away from the course?

The first of four major tournaments on the PGA Tour, the Masters, which has long aired on CBS for the concluding rounds, ends April 11 this year. The U.S. Open follows in June on NBC. The British Open will be seen on ABC in July, and the PGA on CBS in August. Broadcast network coverage will be supplemented by coverage on cable networks.

Tournaments in which Woods isn’t playing generally suffer a drop in viewership and a loss of advertising revenue, notes Larry Novenstern, executive vice president of Optimedia.

For the 15 or so tournaments where Woods might have been expected to play this year, Novenstern estimated the resulting advertising loss to networks would total between $10 million and $20 million. In comparison to other economic hardships challenging broadcasters right now, he says, “This is just a speed bump.”

CSB’ McManus agrees.

“Golf does better economically when Tiger is a major force on the PGA tour,” he says, “but golf is still a valuable product for us.”

There’s no question Woods delivers a ratings kick for any tournament he plays in, ranging from 20 percent to as much as 50 percent.

“But a certain percent of Tiger’s audience is not the traditional golf audience and, in effect, is not what many advertisers are looking for,” says Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications, a media consulting firm, and a former president of CBS Sports. “If Tiger’s in an event, you can expect a 50 percent increase in ratings. You don’t necessarily negotiate a 50 percent increase in the advertising rate.”

Many of the advertisers are so-called “endemics” – brands like Callaway, Titleist and Nike that target products and messages specifically toward golf devotees.

“There’s a strong, economically secure core audience for golf, and there is no indication that they have left,” Pilson says. “The more casual audience that follows Tiger probably won’t be back until he comes back again.”

The Nielsen Co. has estimated that an average of 4.6 million viewers tuned in to tournaments played by Tiger in 2007-08. When Woods had knee surgery after winning the 2008 U.S. Open and missed the rest of the season, ratings sunk as much as 50 percent.

But consider this. Network ratings for the first three tournaments in 2009, all of which Woods also missed because of his knee ailment, when compared to this year’s first three tournaments – also without Woods – show an audience growth of 29 percent.

“We think that’s pretty promising for golf,” says Stephen Master, vice president of Nielsen Sports. “Golf had pretty strong support before Tiger. Maybe people are getting used to the fact that, for a while, at least, Tiger won’t be around.”