Last Sunday when Phil Mickelson won the Masters it was the highest rated golf show in nine years and up 36 percent from last year. Many people watched because it marked the return of sex-scandalized Tiger Woods (following his rehab and “atonement tour”).

I agree with Mark Twain’s comment, “Golf is a good way to ruin a nice walk.” And, never one to mince words, George Carlin called golf an “arrogant, elitist pastime.” (Evidently he was not a golf enthusiast.) Carlin suggested that golf courses be used to build low-cost housing for the homeless. That’s a great idea for Santa Monica except we don’t have a golf course, not even miniature golf.

I’m also not fond of the dictatorial, misogynistic and heretofore racist, home of the Masters, Augusta National Golf Club. The landscaping is beautiful, however.

Some of Phil Mickelson’s detractors claim that he’s a phony, what with his waving to the crowd and signing autographs. If that’s phony, maybe Tiger should try it.

Phil’s wife, Amy, was at the Masters despite battling breast cancer. Her beauty and courage, and his obvious love for her, was better than a Lifetime movie. Their tearful embrace after Phil’s victory was genuinely moving. (And a much-needed balance to Tiger’s sleazy saga.)

Truthfully, Tiger’s fourth place Masters finish was nothing less than astonishing. Off for four months and he finishes 11 under par? Remarkable. But a slight glitch in the newly improved, fan-friendly Tiger was his cursing (in that weird, Bob Dole, third-person style). “Tiger Woods, you suck, goddamnit,” he shouted at himself. And yet the fans in the gallery were surprisingly supportive. Tiger needed it. It was a stressful week.

As he was about to tee off during a practice round, a prank occurred that mocked his commitment to Buddhism. A small plane flew overhead pulling a banner that read, “TIGER: DID YOU MEAN BOOTYISM?” Ouch.

And also that week, another mistress came forward, number 17 (estimated). College student Raychel Coudriet was Tiger’s neighbor in Orlando. She was 21 when they had an affair that included having sex on his office couch next to his children’s crib. Yikes! Actually this could give new meaning to “Wanna get funky at my crib?” But enough of this salaciousness or you’ll think you’re reading the National Enquirer.

In an era where the sports page often resembles a crime sheet, maybe we’d be better off to appreciate our athletes’ remarkable talents and forget the hero worship. Exhibit A: Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a two-time Super Bowl winner. Big Ben allegedly had sex with a 20-year-old female in a nightclub bathroom while his off-duty cop/bodyguard stood watch (loose interpretation of “protect and serve”). On Monday, Ben was notified that he wouldn’t face sexual assault charges. Ah, just another day in the glamorous world of sports.

As grateful as I am for Kobe Bryant’s extraordinary talent, he, like Tiger, seems joyless. The two are so ultra-competitive that they don’t appear to have fun. Both were pampered prodigies, which probably fostered arrogance and entitlement. (Suddenly I sound like Freud.)

It’s likely the same for Michael Jordan. Go to YouTube and watch his Hall of Fame speech. Given the joyous occasion, normally inductees are gracious and humble, but Jordan was as competitive as ever. In the speech he was still getting even with people who doubted or wronged him decades ago. It was pathetic.

The late Michael Jackson was another prodigy, albeit more tragic. I recently rented the DVD documentary “This Is It,” the filmed footage of rehearsals for a series of 50 concerts which were to begin in July 2009. With all concerts sold out, Jackson died less than three weeks before the first concert date.

I stopped being a Michael Jackson fan with the creepy news of the little boy sleepovers at Neverland Ranch. But on stage he was a genius, the greatest entertainer in my lifetime. It’s a pity that “This Is It” never opened because it would have been a show for the ages. I highly recommend the DVD. (First I’m Freud, now Roger Ebert?)

I’m not suggesting that we give athletes, entertainers, artists or politicians a free pass regarding their private lives. (Unless, of course, they’re a Democrat.) What I’m saying is that, because we elevate our heroes to such heights, we feed the notion they can get away with anything. And, using celebrity and cash, they usually do. At Barry Bonds’ 1994 child support hearing the judge asked Bonds for his autograph. I rest my case. (The judge eventually had to recuse himself.)

The NBA playoffs start Sunday at noon on ABC. I realize that the following contradicts everything I’ve just written, but, if Kobe leads the Lakers to another championship (a very big “if”), who cares if he cheats on his wife? Yikes.

When Jack isn’t busy fretting over the Lakers’ recent decline, he can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.

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