Rob Griffith/AP
Jeff Labrecque
November 11, 2011 AT 06:17 PM EST

There are golf fans. And then there are Tiger Woods golf fans. Tiger Woods golf fans don’t necessarily root for Woods — especially since his extramarital scandal — but they definitely tune in when Woods is in the hunt. Sunday afternoons with Woods tearing up the links are must-see television. Golf’s problem is that Woods has been a mere shadow of his former greatness ever since he crashed his car on Thanksgiving 2009. Battling injuries, his swing, and likely his inner demons, Woods hasn’t won a tournament in two years, his marriage dissolved, and most of his richest sponsors abandoned him. Though there have been flashes of brilliance, his game has often been sad to watch. As a result, viewers have tuned out and golf has been unable to fill the void.

But there’s hope in Tigerland today — and at the networks, no doubt. After two rounds of golf, Woods leads the Australian Open by a stroke. “Probably in the last six months, that’s the best I’ve seen him play,” golfer Robert Allenby said. “I’ve seen him at his absolute best … that was a different human being. He’s on his way back, that’s for sure.”

What’s made the difference? For one, Woods finally seems healthy. Two, he might be extraordinarily focused on victory after his ex caddy, a salty Kiwi named Steve Williams, made some insensitive remarks about his former boss at a recent golf banquet. Woods is famous for absorbing an insult and using it for fuel — like the time he annihilated Stephen Ames at the 2006 Match Play Championships after Ames questioned Woods’ accuracy off the tee. I actually think Williams’ comment is partly responsible for Woods’ revived play, but not in the way you’d think. He may be more determined than ever to metaphorically stick the trophy down Williams’ throat. But Williams’ crude remark may have had the secondary effect of pushing the crowds back into Woods’ corner. Let’s be honest, it’s been difficult to root for Woods since his tawdry affairs became public knowledge, and some spectators have expressed their disgust in person — one even threw a hot dog at him! But Williams’ slight seems to have turned the tide. “The fans are out there yelling his name,” said golfer Jason Day, who was paired with Woods on Thursday and Friday. “It’s good to hear that. Golf needs Tiger.”

Don’t underestimate the impact of a kinder crowd on an athlete — especially one who had been showered with adoration since he was a teenager. When Woods was unstoppable, he fed off the crowd. And when his life fell apart, don’t think he wasn’t wounded by every sneer and joke that followed.

Are you ready to root for Tiger Woods again, PopWatchers? Are you at least ready to watch him again without making crude remarks about his social life? Are you intrigued enough to tune in tonight and Saturday night at 8 p.m.?

Read more:

Man who pelted Tiger Woods blames ‘Drive’

Tiger Woods image rehab: Still stuck in a bunker?

You May Like