Stephen Munday, Tim Sloan/Getty
As Tiger Woods returns to professional golf at the Masters this weekend, some people will be rooting against him, disdainfully eyeing the fallen star for his marital infidelity and his epic scandal. Not us. We'll be rooting for him, and here's why.
1. Tiger was boring before; now he's interesting.
Before Tiger Woods crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant in his neighborhood that fateful morning after Thanksgiving, there was nothing human about him. He was a machine--a machine built to hit a golf ball better than any living being ever had. Possibly an alien, but more likely a machine. A winning machine.
None of this was very interesting. Rooting for Tiger was like rooting for Iron Byron. The best reason to root for him, it seemed, was because he was so good.
Now, he's actually human. He is flawed. There was something especially human about his particular type of flaw--the sexual depravity, if that's still a word these days--and it humanized him.
Tiger is now an actual dramatic character, and this adds a dimension to the story. When we look at him, we know there is something going on inside. He is fighting something. He is torn. He is recovering. There is something within him other than machine parts. There is human conflict. There is a story. He must conquer something other than the field of golfers against whom he will play. In Tiger we can recognize the fundamental truths about personal struggle.
Flawed heroes are better than perfect ones.
2. Tiger, the person, is a jerk. But we're cheering the athlete.
Sports are special because they are distinct from life.The real world has gray morals and messy consequences. Golf has rules and scorecards and trophies for the winners. We watch precisely because it's so different from real life.
Similarly, we don't root for athletes as real people. We root for them as athletes. Sometimes this distinction is complicated. The freshness of Tiger's scandals makes it difficult to separate the athlete from the person. Some people will root against Tiger this weekend because of his infidelity. That's fine. There are no rules governing this stuff. But it's silly to pretend that fans don't make the distinction between athlete and person all the time. It's pretty widely reported that Michael Jordan cheated on his wife throughout their marriage. Ditto Alex Rodriguez. That doesn't make Chicago Bulls and New York Yankee fans flagbearers of infidelity, nor does it make them heartless. It just means that we cheer athletes for their athleticism, not for the quality of their private relationships.
3. We're rooting for history.
Let's step back from sports and try on some amateur psychology. You know that small feeling of pride when you learn that today's temperature is that day's highest on record? Or the unbridled excitement with which analysts call this recession (or Congressional partisanship) the worst of our lifetime? There's a name for this. It's called the we-really-like-to-be-able-to-say-we-were-witnesses-to-historically-newsworthy-events phenomenon (TM). If Tiger wins the Masters after the crash, and the Ambien, and the women, and the sex therapy, and the 20-week hiatus, it will be an early contender for comeback story of the decade. So here's the question I ask myself. Would I rather look back on this weekend and say, "That was the weekend Tom Watson won the Masters. Or was it Fred Couples? I always mix those two up," or would I rather say, "That was the Sunday Tiger Woods made the putt on 18 and Jim Nantz fainted on national television"? We can't help it. We like historic news. We're rooting for history.
4. He disappeared. We want to know if he'll come back stronger.
Tiger's self-imposed exile, his disappearance into a rehab facility for an unspecified kind of treatment, has added a dimension of mystery to him, and it's given us a list of unanswered questions. What was the rehab all about? What happened on Thanksgiving? Where's his head at? How will he play this weekend, from start to finish?
If Tiger had been playing golf this whole time, his play at the Masters would be more or less certain: even if he didn't win, he would do well. He would play like Tiger. After his time away, we're not so sure.
Coincidentally, this fits within a literary archetype: heroes are constantly separating themselves from the group, encountering something personal and mystical, and coming back changed. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson, legend has it, went to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil; Superman went to his Fortress of Solitude; Moses went up to the mountaintop, away from his followers, and came back down a different man. Tiger, like these heroes, has indeed communed with something personal and mystical--his own demons--that we can't ever know about, in the same way he does. And here he comes, walking back out of the wilderness, a look of intense focus on his face, changed into something new. What will happen? We don't know.
5. It's fun to root for the bad guy.
If he's not a villain, Tiger is at least an antihero. And sometimes it's fun to root for that.
Tiger exploded the pristine aura that surrounded him, and, you know what, why not root for that explosion? Tiger has a badass goatee now, and, while this isn't the first time he's had a goatee, he sort of looks like the antithesis of his smiling, former self.
Tiger has, in effect, become Darth Tiger.
Just as it felt good, in a dirty way, to root for Peter Parker as Venom in Spiderman 3, rooting for Darth Tiger allows us to cave to our own fantasies of selfishness and underhandedness. And it feels good. Bad guys finish first--deal with it.
Is it possible Darth Tiger is more powerful? Will his zipping, elastic, muscular swing become suddenly more terrifying? It's hard to know. Maybe we won't know until all is said and done on Sunday.