The golf world was given a choice a few years ago after Tiger Woods ill-timed run in with the world's most famous fire hydrant: focus solely on the golfer and remain supportive or focus on the flawed man and root against him.
Either way, the television networks stood to benefit as Tiger Woods turned into a golfing version of the Batman villain Two Face. Loyalists would watch to see him win by separating the artist from the art while detractors prone to schadenfreude would root for his demise. Either way, so long as Woods played, fans and rubberneckers alike would tune in. It was a can't lose proposition for golf - ironically, the antithesis of the message of the famous short story The Lady or the Tiger.
All that could foil the plan was Woods not playing or becoming irrelevant on Sundays. And that has been the state of golf for the past three years.
To the networks, Woods is the living embodiment of the guy who doesn't care whether you say anything good or bad about him so long as you are talking about him. As Woods has rarely played or been on the leader board on Sunday, his absence has greatly diminished interest in the game: as Tiger Woods goes, so goes the PGA Tour.
This weekend we have again seen a small glimpse how popular golf on TV can be with Tiger Woods back in contention. In the past, Woods had few detractors, at least publicly, and was both the media and gallery darling.
Now, after seeing his marriage and his game implode, his life is far more nuanced and he can no longer hide behind the facade of perfection as he had for so long.
This incarnation of Tiger Woods is no longer a fictitious idol of Nike's making and our own imagination. The new comeback Tiger, warts and all, the divorced philanderer, the aging (by golf standards) broken down veteran is a far more real and interesting character. Someone that most can relate to in some way. He no longer represents a laboratory experiment cooked up in the garage of his father Earl Woods; this Tiger has been tamed by both the golf gods and the temptations of life. And, for anyone who has erred in either the game of life or golf, he is a relatable flawed hero this time around.
Mark Twain wrote that Golf is a good walk spoiled. If he were working today, he may have said that Tiger Woods was a good golfer spoiled. This weekend Tiger has begun to demonstrate that he is no longer the petulant child prone to histrionics in the oldest gentleman's game on Earth. Since his accident, divorce and surgery the game has given him a much needed "time out."
We have already began to see the results of this newly mature, resurgent and relevant Tiger. On Friday, TV ratings were up 64 percent from last year, proving that Woods is the one and only transcendent star in golf, the only one capable of making golf more than a country club sport with a passionate but still narrow niche audience. By Sunday, with Tiger out of contention after a disastrous start to his final round, TV ratings were down 22 percent from the last comparable prime time final round of 2008.
For a fleeting moment, the story in golf was back to being Tiger Woods and even though he faltered down the stretch, we will see with the benefit of time and good health and this comeback in full swing on the game's biggest stage, this showing at Olympic has proven that in life and in golf, sometimes you really do get a mulligan and you can make the best of it.
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