By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Tiger Woods is back in Green Jacket contention and from country club bars to boardrooms, the former world number one is once again the tide lifting all boats in the golfing world.
Golf television ratings are trending upwards, so are equipment and ball sales while Masters tickets and even tips are experiencing a 'Tiger Bump' as a rejuvenated Woods returns to the U.S. Masters for the first time in three years.
Much of the buzz being generated around golf's first major is emanating from a 42-year-old golfer who is closer to qualifying for the Seniors Tour (open to players 50 and over) than his last victory at Augusta in 2005.
But nothing gets the sporting public revved up more than a compelling comeback story and Woods is writing one for the ages.
"This is a little bit like a Lazarus resurrection here with respect to where he was,” Steve Mona, World Golf Foundation CEO, told Reuters. "Only last September he was talking about whether he would be able to comeback at all. Now that he is the favorite at the Masters it is just astonishing.
“He is certainly in form. I don’t think anyone would be terribly surprised if he were in the hunt.”
The greatest player of his generation, Woods dominated golf like few athletes in any sport ever have.
A prodigious talent who first appeared on television swinging a golf club at two years old, Woods grew into a champion by winning 14 majors in swashbuckling style. He became a crossover celebrity and very wealthy with career earnings totaling $1.7 billion according to a 2017 report by Forbes.
Having climbed to such great heights, Woods' fall from grace that started in 2009 has been all the more shocking.
A tawdry divorce, a DUI and years and years of injuries, surgeries and failed treatments sent sponsors scurrying.
The back that had caused Woods so much pain was getting no better and the golfer who had held the number one world ranking for a collective 683 weeks slumped out of the top 1,000.
Even the ever-positive Woods suddenly seemed resigned to a dour fate.
Yet after undergoing spinal fusion surgery last April the dark clouds hanging over Woods slowly began to lift.
Shaking off years of competitive rust, Woods returned with an encouraging tie for ninth at the Hero World Challenge followed by a tie for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open and a missed cut at the Genesis Open.
Then suddenly Woods grabbed the spotlight as only he can, announcing his return to form with three impressive results — 12th at the Honda Classic, a tie for second at the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods' back now appears to be strong enough to carry the hopes of an entire industry that is experiencing a 'Tiger Bump'.
With Woods back in contention, NBC/Golf Channel said the final rounds of both the Arnold Palmer and Valspar championships registered the highest ratings for a PGA Tour telecast, outside of the majors, since the 2015 Wyndham Championship.
The golf industry has also seen a spike. Bridgestone said that when Woods (who uses their ball) has been in the field in 2018, the average basket value with Bridgestone products increased by over 120 percent compared with the same period in 2017.
"His endorsement (that we make the best ball) is more valuable than all of the science and data that we throw out to the consumers," Angel Ilgan, President & CEO of Bridgestone, told Reuters.
"It is just ridiculous that we can show them hundreds and thousands of testings with robots and projectile guns that we're the best ball, the most accurate ball. And the consumer doesn't believe us until Tiger says, Yeah that's true.
"During Tiger's absence the entire industry, the PGA Tour, we were all kind of looking who is the next player.
"Then when Tiger came back the entire industry is jumping on the Tiger bandwagon."
The trickle down economics of Woods' comeback are far-reaching.
During the final round of the Valspar, a bartender at a golf club raved on social media that tips were up 300 percent with Woods in contention.
"I was slammed packed with people watching Tiger play, it was insane," said Alcaonline in a post on Reddit picked up by several news outlets.
"I know it seems minimal but the economic trickle down effect this has when it comes to the golf world is hard to explain. I made at least 3X the amount of money I usually make on Sundays just because Tiger was in contention."
With Woods at the start of a comeback but on the downslope of a turbulent but spectacular career, it is uncertain how long this Tiger bubble will last.
But with Woods' stock soaring everyone is buying in and Mona believes that it could be a good long-term investment.
"That (bartender) obviously takes it down to the grassroots level and it is felt on many different levels and the most obvious ones are from TV ratings standpoint," said Mona. "It's astronomical how much they have increased and there is one common denominator and that is Tiger in contention.
"You look at attendance at those events and it is much the same story.
"What Tiger does is he increases interest in the game... they get interested and think maybe this is a game for me."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)