It's officially Masters week, or as many folks in the sports media world call it, Tiger Woods versus the Field week.
The Masters is the official start of major championship golf season, which not only begs the question of whether Tiger is "back" and if he is a safe bet against a field that features 92 of the world's best golfers, but, still, how we feel about the best golfer of his generation.
Do we still hate Tiger Woods? Did we ever really hate him? And if you answered yes to either of those questions, does that mean you actually hate golf?
To be fair, the question of whether you can love golf and hate Tiger may seem a bit rhetorical—and ridiculous. For some reason, we are still having the "I hate Tiger Woods" conversation in 2013. (I know, I know…I'm perpetuating the whole thing by writing about it, even if I'm trying to understand it and, in a way, debunk it.)
Forbes puts out a list every year of the most disliked athletes in sports. Woods topped the list in 2012 along with Michael Vick and fell to third on the list this year behind Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o.
Per the Forbes Nielsen/E-Poll results, Woods appeals to just 19 percent of those questioned, meaning that 81 percent of those surveyed still dislike the guy.
I would love to figure out who these people are, because none of them can be golf fans. More than three years removed from his life-changing scandal, it has felt like three lifetimes for Woods in terms of his golf game. Methinks those who voted care less about his swing than his…well…swing.
Certainly, a poll taken by Nielsen that's published by Forbes doesn't exactly give us the mindset of the sports fan—and certainly not the average golf fan—but it seems amazing how few people have moved on from hating Woods after the scandal more than three years ago, especially considering both he and his ex-wife have moved on with totally new lives.
That doesn't mean we have to love the guy, but the fact that people still even care about his past says something about how much we care—good or bad—about Woods in the first place.
Mind you, this is not to suggest that we should all start rooting for Woods to win every tournament, and Nike's publicity stunt after his last victory proclaiming that winning takes care of everything was about as tone-deaf as humanly possible, but that doesn't mean the sentiment was wrong. It certainly doesn't mean that any of us should still, or ever, hate Woods.
I get that people don't like cheaters, but unlike Armstrong, Woods cheated on his wife, not his sport. People may hate the guy for being a serial philanderer—it is rather hard to pull for a guy who would do the things that Woods has done in his private life—but rooting for the guy and actively disliking him are two very different things.
As much as the powers-that-be in the world of golf don't want to hear it, they need Woods more than Woods needs golf. There is nobody inside the game of golf, and that includes the players, who should dislike Tiger, especially after we saw what the game would look like without him prowling atop the leaderboards.
For the higher-ups within the game, Woods winning the Masters would be an enormous victory for the sport, putting him one win closer to Jack Nicklaus' major championship record and setting up the potential for a historic summer on the PGA Tour.
For fans of the game who may not be fans of Woods, we (yes, as much as it reads like I am a Woods apologist, I assure you that I don't actually root for the guy) should want Woods to be at his best just as much as those in charge of the game—and those in charge of the TV networks—certainly do.
No matter who you root for in golf—if you are a Phil Mickelson fan or a Rory McIlroy fan or a Bubba Watson guy or maybe a big Charl Schwartzel supporter—you want your favorite player to not just win the Masters, but to beat Woods while doing it.
Despite not winning at Augusta National Golf Club since 2005, the four-time champion has become as synonymous with Masters success as the green jacket itself. Every spring, golf fans look forward to the azaleas, the Hogan Bridge, CBS' tinkly music and Tiger against the field.
The Masters just seems to matter a bit more when Woods is at the top of his game.
Despite all the controversy, tumult and physical injury in his life, Woods has been in contention at Augusta every year but one since his last victory. Outside of the dismal result last season, tying for 40th, Woods has finished no worse than sixth in six of the last seven Masters tournaments.
Woods enters the 2013 Masters with his game as strong as it has been in years. He already has three victories this season, and there has never been a more logical time to wonder if Tiger can outlast the entire Masters field. In all honesty, for the first time in more than half a decade, the "Tiger versus the Field" conversation makes sense.
How can anyone dislike this?
That, right there, is the problem. I should say that, right there, is my problem. I'm unable to separate the golfer from the man anymore. With more than three years gone since Woods was a tabloid punching bag, it becomes harder and harder to remember the guy who America hated for his philandering the more and more we get to see the smiling face of Tiger Woods, trophy-holding champion.
The game still needs Woods to be great, and this year, he has been great, so how can we hate that if we love the game?
Is Woods still a bully on the course? Probably, but less so than he used to be. Does Woods still shield his private life from the public eye? Surely, but far less so then he used to do (and it stands to reason why he would do that anyway).
Woods has evolved, and so too has our relationship with him as fans of the game. The only thing that hasn't changed in the last three years, to be frank, is the sport's reliance on his superiority.
Mickelson could win his fourth Masters this week, tying Woods for career victories at Augusta. McIlroy could win his first, giving him three major titles before the age of 24. Any number of players in an incredibly deep field at Augusta could put on the green jacket on Sunday, but none of those scenarios will be as good as them winning the Masters by beating Woods down the stretch.
There's not a golf fan in the world who wouldn't want to see that—other than the diehard fans of Woods who would like to see him beat the likes of McIlroy or Mickelson on the back nine on Sunday.
People can say that they still hate Woods all they want, but many—if not all—of us want him to be in contention this week. It will just feel more important if he's there.
In a way, then, we all root for Woods to do well, even if we don’t want him to win. Perhaps that makes him nothing more than a means to an end—the bad guy to stand in place so the good guy can beat him—but it sure seems hard to dislike, or especially hate, someone you root for to finish in second.
It sure seems hard to still hate a guy who the sport still needs this much.