After the calamitous events of November 2009 that toppled Tiger Woods from the pinnacle of professional golf, it has been a long, bumpy road back to proficiency.  However, in recent months the golfing world has witnessed signs that Woods is ready to re-emerge as a major factor on the Tour, having finished third at the Australian Open, played well at the Presidents Cup, and shortly thereafter won his first event in over two years at the Chevron Classic.  Yesterday, Woods shot a quite respectable 68 at Spyglass Hill to put himself in the mix in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.   

Yet, while Woods has worked through emotional distress, overcome a vexing knee injury, and rehabilitated his golf swing, it appears that he still has work to do to overcome the negative image created by the lurid stories of his marital infidelity that cost him his marriage, many sponsors, and the loss of a large portion of his fan base.   According to Forbes magazine, Woods ranks at the top of the list of the most disliked athletes in sports.  He is tied for this distinction with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who still has not been able to shake the negative image created by his involvement in a dogfighting enterprise (for which he served 19 months in prison).

The Forbes list is based on a poll conducted by Nielson and E-Poll Market Research.  (I didn’t receive a call.)  Although both Woods and Vick scored a 60% “dislike” percentage, Forbes put Vick at the top of the list because Woods had fewer “dislike a lot” responses.   (I wonder if the order would have been reversed had Woods’ former mistresses been polled.)   

Placing third on the list (56% dislike) was New York Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who had his own encounter with the criminal justice system after shooting himself in the leg with a concealed weapon at a Manhattan night club several years ago.   Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Su, who has the reputation of being one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, followed at 51%.  Su did not help his cause by stomping on the head of a Green Bay offensive lineman during a Thanksgiving Day game last season, putting a damper on turkey dinners across America. 

Rounding out the top 10 were Kris Humphries, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Terrell Owens, Alex Rodriguez (obviously some Red Sox fans were polled), and Kurt Busch.  

If Tiger returns to form this year, no doubt TV ratings for tournaments he enters will spike.  Whatever you think about his personal transgressions, there is a large segment of golf viewers that tunes in only to see Woods.   This could be the year when Woods ends his drought of major victories, dating back to the 2008 U.S. Open.    If that happens, we’ll have to wait for next year’s Forbes poll to see whether success on the course translates into more likability.  My guess is that winning another green jacket counts more to Tiger than moving down the Forbes list.