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Mark O’Meara was his best friend, more like a big brother, for many years until O’Meara remarried and moved to Houston. They talk sporadically and see each other even less. Woods remains close to Notah Begay, who rarely plays on tour these days. He plays practice rounds with Arjun Atwal, another member at Isleworth Country Club, outside Orlando.

Stewart Cink was among his biggest supporters when Woods first was exposed for cheating on his wife after Thanksgiving 2009. They have been playing golf since they were juniors and joined the PGA Tour about the same time. Cink once told a story of how his mother went back onto the course after his round because she wanted to watch Woods play.

“I don’t feel like I know him as well as I used to,” Cink said. “I never knew him that well, but now I feel like I hardly know him at all. I wouldn’t say that’s a big difference. I think he may be gun shy about getting close to people, either his fellow competitors like me, caddies, the media. He’s a really private guy. But once you get to know him, he’s really good to be around.

“He’s not out here to be social. That’s not his goal,” Cink said. “He has a big sheet of goals to accomplish. His social life is not his No. 1 priority, nor should it be.”

Now that Woods has moved into his new home in south Florida, he has practiced on occasion at the Bear’s Club, home of Jack Nicklaus. Robert Allenby saw him there two weeks ago and said he felt Woods seemed more at ease with his life. At tournaments, he sees no change.

“We see him come out and practice, play and get out of here,” Allenby said. “He’s always been a big one to save his energy for the tournaments. But that’s the beauty of Tiger. A lot of stuff has happened in his life. When it comes to his golf, he still tried to keep that the same. That’s impressive. I know what it’s like to go through a divorce, and it can get seriously ugly.”

That falls in line with what Woods said in 2000 to Golf Digest senior writer Jaime Diaz, who has been around Woods longer than any other journalist. “To live a sane life, I have to be ruthless sometimes. Put up a wall, be cold, say no. If I didn’t, I would never have my own time and space, which is vital to me to achieve what I want in life.”

Even so, some of his peers thought he would return a different person _ perhaps spend a little more time in the locker room, or play charity events for other players beyond his closest friends.

For all he’s done to wreck his image, most everyone on tour wants to see him return to greatness. Even though there is a new wave of players starting to emerge, like U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, it’s hard to find anyone who won’t say that golf still needs Woods.

“Tiger still is golf, really,” McDowell said. “It’s exciting to have him back.”

Cink could see parallels with David Duval, an enigma when he was No. 1 in the world, portraying a coldness behind those wraparound shades. His game went into a freefall, partially brought on by injuries, and when Duval was at his lowest, he showed a softer side and became more appealing.

Woods has never warmed to the media, mastering the art of saying very little, but with a smile.

The shield now is a cement wall.

Woods once said he never read anything, and even turned down the TV when one of his friends was playing, because the media had opinions without having all the facts. Now he reads everything. He will be the first to admit that the calamity in his personal life is no one’s fault but his own. But he thinks the media has made it personal.

His answers are more clipped. Asked last week how long it has been since his leg felt this strong, Woods replied, “Years,” without saying how many. How long since he stopped having to put ice on his knee? “A while ago,” he said.

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