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Why we can’t stop watching Tiger Woods

The rise and fall of Tiger remains the most fascinating sports story of our liftime

We've hosted Super Bowls. A World Series and Stanley Cup, too.

We've had Final Fours and All-Star Games and the college football national championship.

But never have we had an athlete come here to play as famous as the one who is coming this week.

Tiger Woods.

Who cares that he hasn't won a tournament since 2013? Who cares that he hasn't won a major in 10 years?

We're talking Tiger Woods!

We're talking about one of the most famous people on the planet. We're talking about one of the most famous athletes who has ever lived.

And we're talking about the most fascinating sports story of our lifetime.

The rise and fall of Tiger Woods — from child prodigy to the No. 1 golfer in the world to disgraced gossip column fodder to now — is the single most compelling sports story we have ever seen.

It's golf's version of Michael Corleone. It's a man who rises to power, glory and fame only to see it slip away because of hubris and pride. And now he seeks atonement.

But there's more to it.

It's a story accented by race, by greatness, by failure and, perhaps, redemption.

And it's a story that continues right here in Tampa Bay, a place Woods has not played since 1996, just before he blew up and became an icon who touched every group of society.

It didn't matter if you were black or white, Asian or anything else. It didn't matter if you were male or female, young or old, rich or poor, a golf fan or novice. None of that mattered. You still knew Tiger Woods.

Fans who had watched golf all their lives had never seen anything like him. Those who had never watched golf before started watching. Tiger played with fire and finesse, with passion and power. He cursed when he hit a bad shot and pumped his fist when he drained a long putt.

Maybe you loved him. Maybe you didn't. There was no in-between. Either way, you watched. Woods rescued a dying PGA Tour that needed the kind of spark it had never seen before, the kind of spark only Woods could provide.

Before he even turned 3, Woods appeared on the Mike Douglas talk show alongside Bob Hope, showing off his uncanny skills. By the time he was a teenager, his father, Earl, was the target of scorn and ridicule and even racism when he predicted Tiger would make golf history.

Earl was right. Tiger would make history.

His professional coming out party came when he was only 21. He annihilated the 1997 Masters, winning by 12 shots with a record 18-under.

He would go on to win a Tiger Slam, meaning he was the defending champ of all four majors at one time. He continued to dominate the sport, winning 14 majors by the time he was 32 and well on his way to smashing Jack Nicklaus' record of 18.

Then it all came to a crashing halt. Literally.

Thanksgiving night, 2009. A wrecked car, followed by crazy rumors of trouble with his wife. Then a story almost too shocking to believe.

Woods, married with two children, had affairs with dozens of women. Details were sordid, and America was disgusted and mesmerized all the same time. We didn't want to hear anymore, yet we couldn't get enough.

His wife left him. Sponsors dropped him. Fans deserted him.

His personal and professional life would never be the same. The man who once seemed so perfect was flawed — personally, professionally, morally, physically, emotionally. As his life came tumbling down, his body began to break down. Back issues have sabotaged the past five years of his career. It led to an embarrassing DUI arrest because of prescription pills less than a year ago. His attempt to break Nicklaus' major record, at one time a given, now feels impossible.

The man who once dominated and intimidated the rest of golf does neither anymore. Hard to believe, but he's 42. He's no longer the up-and-coming wunderkind or the best golfer in the world. Now he's the old guy trying to recapture just a slice of what he once was.

Few are betting on him to do it.

These days, feelings on Tiger are split. Many of those who loved him back in the day still do. Those who didn't like him still don't. Some have never forgiven him for his transgressions. Others have.

But this is clear: Tiger remains as popular as ever. This year, the two highest TV ratings for golf tournaments are the two tournaments in which Tiger made the cut, the Farmers Insurance Open in January (tied for 23rd) and last week's Honda Classic (12th). He missed the cut in February's Genesis Open.

"He may be the biggest name in sports, matched only by Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali," Neal H. Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and president of Pilson Communications, Inc., told Golf Digest. "Does he still move the needle? The answer is yes. When he plays, the networks are going to give him coverage. And the fact is the public wants to see that coverage.''

We'll be watching this week. We have no choice.

After all, it's Tiger Woods.