ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We are just two weeks away from the Masters tournament and here's the good news for golf fans, better news than azaleas even. Tiger Woods is back. He is the number one ranked golfer in the world again. He has won two tournaments this month. And before his marital infidelities and his streak of lackluster play, it used to be as Tiger went, so went professional golf. Is that still the case?
Well, joining us now is Ron Sirak, senior writer for Golf Digest. Welcome to the program.
RON SIRAK: Thanks for having me, my pleasure.
SIEGEL: And, first, does it now look like the Tiger Woods of the past couple of years was the odd exception in his career and the commanding dominant Tiger Woods is back?
SIRAK: Well, you know, I don't know if we're ever going to see the vintage 2000 Tiger again where he won nine tournaments and three major championships. But, you know, we have to remember that even a version of Tiger-light can still be the best player in the world. You know, he hasn't won a major championship now in five years. He hasn't won a Masters in eight years and the four major championships are really his proving ground.
We'll know a lot more in two weeks at Augusta.
SIEGEL: Well, here's one test. It used to be that if Tiger Woods was in contention on a Saturday and golf tournaments run typically the Thursday through Sunday, if Woods was in the hunt on the weekend, the TV ratings were high. If he wasn't, nobody cared. Has that happened, say, in most recently this month?
SIRAK: Yeah, there are still three kind of golf tournaments, Tiger's in the field, Tiger's in the field and he's in contention and Tiger's not in the field, and those are three distinctly ratings. The all-time ratings record is still that Sunday in 1997 when he won his first Masters. It was a 14-1, which in golf is phenomenal.
SIEGEL: How dependent is this sport on this one superstar?
SIRAK: Well, Tiger's the only person who expands the fan base, not just beyond the golf fan to the general sports fan, but he can expand it beyond the sports fan to the public at large. I mean, he's a cultural phenomenon. He's a multiracial man who's been successful in a historically white sport. That makes him a phenomenon whether he's winning or losing. He's just a story no matter what he does.
SIEGEL: Well, do you get the impression that people feel any differently about Woods after the close-up we were all treated to of his huge clay feet? Is he still a darling of the galleries or is this a different relationship?
SIRAK: Well, here's my observation and I was with him last week in Orlando when he won at Bay Hill. I think about a third of the fans have either forgiven him or never had a problem with what he did to begin with. I think about a third of the fans are never going to forgive him or never liked him to begin with and there were always those people who thought he was too much of a showman, didn't like his swearing.
And then, there's that third in the middle who don't necessarily embrace him, but they love great golf. They cheer for the wonderful things that he can do on the golf course more than they cheer for him. So I think what that means is he's got, like, two-thirds of the people out there when he's playing well are pulling for him and want him to do well.
SIEGEL: Now, it's tempting to say all of this is inside Tiger Woods' head, that he's now back on top of his game. But when you look at him swing a club or putt, what's different about him this year from the years of his losing streak?
SIRAK: Well, I think two things. I think, one, he's physically healthy. His left knee has been operated on four times. He's had Achilles problems in both ankles and those seem to be behind him. He's gone through a swing change over the last couple years and it takes a long time for that to become part of your muscle memory.
He seems to me, right now, to be swinging with greater confidence and he's putting better. And the putter has always been the great eraser for Tiger Woods. When he made a mistake, he could make the big putt that would save par. That seems to be back. Now here's the other thing I saw at Bay Hill when he won that tournament.
I think the intimidation factor is starting to come back, too. Of the 10 guys who were within four strokes of him going into the final round, none of them scored lower than him on Sunday.
SIEGEL: Ron Sirak, senior writer for Golf Digest, thanks for talking with us.
SIRAK: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
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