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.