First came Tigermania in 1997, when a fresh-faced Tiger Woods came to Augusta National Golf Club and set the golf world on fire.
Then there was the Tiger Slam in 2001, when all the pressure in the world couldn’t prevent him from completing the impossible.
Then came the Tiger-razzi in 2010, when a chagrined Woods made his public return after five months hiding in a tabloid storm and finished fourth.
Now it’s time for the Tiger Comeback, and there’s no telling what the 42-year-old version of Woods might accomplish.
For the fourth time in his attention-grabbing career, Woods has inspired breathless anticipation for his return to the Masters Tournament he’s won four times. It’s been 1,090 days since his last competitive round at Augusta National as a series of back surgeries threatened to end his career. His comeback after missing three of the past four Masters has once again raised the hype bar coming into the season’s first major championship.
“Tiger has returned and far surpassed anyone’s loftiest expectations of what he’d be able to do this quickly,” said CBS’ voice of the Masters, Jim Nantz, who calls this “probably the most anticipated Masters that any of us has seen in our lifetimes.”
“It’s exciting for the game. It’s indisputable that there’s a greater buzz when he’s in the middle of it,” Nantz said.
The numbers are indeed indisputable. The four events in which Woods has made the cut this year – at Torrey Pines, PGA National, Innisbrook and Bay Hill – are the four highest-ranked telecasts of the PGA Tour season.
The Valspar Championship, where he finished runner-up, drew the largest TV audience for any non-Masters event since the 2015 PGA Championship. Its Sunday 5.11 rating was the highest for any non-major since the 2013 Players Championship, which was won by Woods. The third-round audience was the highest on any network since 2006.
A week later when the Arnold Palmer Invitational was going up against the NCAA Tournament, the Sunday ratings were equal or better than the final rounds of the 2017 U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. NBC’s coverage peaked with a 4.89 rating from 5:15 to 5:30 p.m., when Woods charged within a shot of the lead.
“I think we’re all familiar with the bump you get in ratings when Tiger is in contention,” said Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports.
That bump has been reflected in the secondary market for Masters tickets, which have climbed many thousands of dollars above face value.
“Obviously Tiger has created a great buzz this year,” said three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo, now a CBS commentator. “His game and the on-course media and attention has been very much like the old days of Tiger.”
That attention has ratcheted up as Woods’ competitiveness has more resembled his former self before all the back problems, surgeries and subsequent issues with pain medications, which led to a DUI arrest last year that appeared to have derailed any hopes of him returning to his former glory.
“I can confirm he’s back – the roars are back,” said Brandt Snedeker, who has been paired with Woods in five of his 18 rounds this season. “It’s fun to hear the crowd going crazy again and realize how excited we are in having him back out here and playing the way he is. He’s playing great.”
While his early returns, despite some erratic driving, have surpassed expectation, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise to those who know Woods best.
“A part of me is not shocked at all because it’s Tiger,” said Augusta native Charles Howell, a tour friend and former neighbor of Woods. “It’s still what’s in the guy. People forget, it’s still Tiger.”
In Tampa, where Woods had never played before nearly winning last month, record crowds followed him around the course while virtually ignoring the groups immediately in his wake.
“The first thing you notice is your cellphone will not work when Tiger’s around,” Howell said of Woods' impact. “Traffic around the tournament becomes a problem quick. Everything changes when Tiger Woods is at a tournament.”
While cell service won’t be an issue at the Masters, the general commotion that Woods’ presence brings will be at peak level. The fact that Woods arrives as the betting favorite riding a streak of 12 consecutive rounds of par or better has raised expectations that he just might shock the golf world again this week despite not having won the Masters since 2005 or any major since 2008.
Faldo said it would be Woods’ “greatest achievement.”
Nantz, whose first Masters assignment was calling Jack Nicklaus’ victory in 1986 from the tower on the 16th hole, thinks it could be on that scale.
“If he was to win it, you’re going to be talking about one of the epic moments in the history of sport,” Nantz said. “It’s as simple as that. To have him back in Butler Cabin, it would truly be one of the all-time scripts. This is an event that has an amazing ability to be able to produce these Hollywood quality stories. ... You walk away most years with your head spinning about how in the world did this happen and how did serendipity present itself again at Augusta National.”