Tiger Woods needs all the support he can get

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WALLA WALLA - I've never belonged to the Tiger Woods' Fan Club.

That's because, I guess, I've always aligned myself with underdogs. And that's a role Tiger has never played since he broke onto the PGA Tour as a 20-year-old in 1996 after winning a record three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles.

He's been golf's most dominant player ever since.

His professional record includes 71 PGA Tour victories, third all-time behind Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead, plus 38 more victories on the European Tour. His 14 major titles are second only to Nicklaus.

I thought very much the same way about Nicklaus during the height of his career. Like Woods, the Golden Bear was the favorite in every tournament he entered, so I pledged my allegiance elsewhere.

Lee Trevino was more my style with his swashbuckling, grip-it-and-rip-it approach to an otherwise genteel sport.

Still, there's no denying that Tiger Woods is the greatest player of this generation and quite probably the best in the sport's history. His career scoring average is the lowest in PGA history, and that speaks for itself.

And he has won an incredible 30 percent of the tournaments he has entered since turning pro.

None of which will mean much when Woods tees off Thursday morning in Augusta, Ga., in the first round of the 74th Masters. The year's first major marks Woods' return to the golf course after a five-month, self-imposed exile in the shadows of marital infidelity and public disgrace.

Woods will find himself in the customary spotlight all week long. But it will be his personal issues, not his golf game, that will be under the greatest scrutiny.

In an attempt to defuse some of the unwanted attention, Woods held a bare-the-soul televised press conference following a Monday morning practice round. He apologized all around for his inappropriate behavior, pledged to be a better man and fielded questions from a select press corps for about 40 minutes.

For the most part, I thought he came off as an honestly humbled figure, remorseful of his actions and determined to prove he is worthy of forgiveness. Certainly more so than what we've come to expect from most other high profile athletes of this generation caught up in similar circumstances.

But Woods doesn't need my forgiveness. Or yours.

This matter is between Tiger, his wife Elin, their two children and their two respective families. No one else matters.

And nothing Woods says will make any difference at all. Only what he does. Now and every day forward.

So, for the first time, I'll be rooting for Tiger Woods this weekend in Augusta. Not for the golfer but for the husband and father.

Because for the first time in his life, Woods is an underdog. He faces an uphill climb, and there's no guarantee he's going to reach the top.

Somehow, that makes him seem a little more human and a lot less formidable.

I can identify with that.

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