- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - The circus is largely gone and so, mostly, are the questions about his personal life. Tiger Woods returned to the Masters this week without feeling the urge to apologize for anything, even the poor state of his game.

A year ago, the chairman of Augusta National lectured him about his conduct and what it meant to the game of golf. On Tuesday, he was welcomed back to his 17th Masters as a four-time champion who means so much to golf.

A lot has changed for Woods in the year since he emerged from self-imposed exile following his sex scandal. What hasn’t changed is that some of his play has been almost as embarrassing as the revelations about his personal life.

The man who once wowed fans with booming drives and precision irons now struggles to keep up with his playing partners. The player who never used to miss a 6-footer now can only shake his head as the putts don’t come near the hole.

Woods says it’s nothing more than finding his way through a new swing change. Others who know something about human failings believe it may go a lot deeper than fairways and greens.

“He’s got experience coming back from technical problems, but he doesn’t have experience coming back from shame,” said Sharon Chirban, a Harvard sports psychologist who coaches athletes in her private practice. “Until the shame is managed, he will never come back to the level of play he had before.”

Just what is going on in Woods‘ private life is mostly a matter of conjecture, though some things are obviously different since he surprised many by finishing fourth at the Masters last year in his first tournament since the scandal. He’s divorced now with two young children and is preparing to move into a new mansion _ complete with a short game course _ near where his ex-wife recently bought a new home herself.

What is going on in his golf game seems just as murky, though Woods insisted again Tuesday that his only problems are refining his new swing and figuring out a way to make more putts. It’s been his stock answer since he came out of seclusion here last year amid a circus that included planes flying overhead carrying banners taunting him, tabloids stalking him, and so many reporters wanting to ask him questions that tickets had to be issued for his pre-tournament press conference.

Woods resisted efforts to link his personal life with his bad golf, deflecting questions with the ease he used to hit his driver.

Is he in a better place this year?

He said he felt “almost ready to tee it up Thursday.”

Has he grown personally even while struggling with family and golf issues?

He barely budged. “As far as being a better person, I try to do that each and every day,” Woods said. “That will and always will be the case.”

Famously controlling even before the scandal, Woods signaled early in his comeback he has no intention of answering anything that doesn’t have to do with golf or the state of his game.

That leaves others to speculate, and there’s no lack of theories about what is wrong. Amateur psychologists debating the issue in bars might think it’s as simple as a loss of confidence in his swing or the lack of a steady female companion, but the professionals have other ideas.

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