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Woods shows softer side ahead of difficult Players

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Tiger Woods continues to reveal a side of himself we haven’t seen.

He’s still hugging folks like PGA Tour events are more family reunions than heavyweight title bouts.

Sean Foley, Woods’ former coach, got a warm embrace on the back of the driving range Tuesday with Woods preparing for The Players Championship.

In his news conference after nine practice holes, Woods gave media the equivalent of hugs. Instead of stiff-arming questions, he embraced them. He dropped his guard, just like he did at the Masters a month ago. He continued to give us more revealing answers than we grew used to hearing in bygone days. He even showed the kind of vulnerability he would never have shown in his prime.

“It does affect me,” Woods said when asked indirectly about his breakup earlier this week with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, his girlfriend of three years. “It is tough. There’s no doubt.”

Woods relayed how this time of year is tough on him, anyway. He and Vonn announced their split on Sunday. Woods reminded us that the news came out on the ninth anniversary of the death of his father, Earl.

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“I haven’t slept,” Woods said.

By the time Woods left the stage in the interview area at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, you wondered if he needed a hug.

“It’s been, these three days ... just brutal on me,” he said.

Leaving the news conference, Woods stopped beside a disabled reporter in a wheelchair. He stopped to give a one-one-one interview. He leaned over to better hear the reporter, and he leaned in with his answers.

Moments before, Woods was asked by another reporter if he was hoping to build on the momentum he created playing the Masters, where he tied for 17th. That was Woods’ first tournament appearance since he limped away from the Farmers Insurance Open two months earlier with both his body and game broken down. The question about momentum was aimed at Woods’ play at Augusta National, but it could have been aimed at the change in his public persona. Woods may still guard his private life, but not quite as intensely. He did, after all, make his return to the Masters Par 3 Contest with his two young children on very public display in caddie uniforms beside him.

This Tiger Woods 3.0 leaves a lot of new questions in his wake.

“He’s a much softer person now,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. “His relationships matter to him, and he’s much friendlier. I’m not sure that’s great for his golf game, but it’s sure nice to see.”

Miller made that observation in an NBC/Golf Channel conference call before the breakup with Vonn was announced. Who knows what happened in the relationship, but with Woods’ children so obviously close to Vonn, people care.

What does all of this have to do with golf?

Miller wonders, too.

The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course is a ruthless inquisitor. Come Thursday, it’s going to be asking Woods all the hard questions about his game. Who knows how a man’s inner life gets channeled into tests like this. There’s no telling. What we will quickly discern is how Woods’ swing changes continue to evolve. Pete Dye’s unforgiving design will expose flaws in brutish fashion.

Woods made a nice return at the Masters. He answered questions about the state of his short game, which appeared in shambles before his arrival. He fixed his chipping, and he was thrilled about it. The Stadium Course’s questions are a lot different than Augusta National’s. The interrogation will turn harder to Woods’ ball-striking this week.

“I've never really seen anything like it,” Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said of Woods’ radically improved short game at the Masters. “I've never seen anybody overcome that sort of problem in their pitching game. If you just look at what he accomplished there, and you don't consider anything else ...”

But if you look closer, if you look harder at Woods’ swing ...

“Tiger hit the fewest fairways he's ever hit in his career at Augusta National,” Chamblee said. “He's never driven it worse in his entire career than he drove it this year at Augusta. And only one time in his entire career has he ever ranked worse in greens in regulation. Augusta National is a place where he could get away with some errant drives, and he could get away with missing it in the right spot, and his scrambling was so good that he was able to save himself. But if he hits the ball the way he did at Augusta at The Players, The Players will eat his lunch.”

Woods played his practice round Tuesday with Jason Day. According to folks who followed them, Woods didn’t hit the ball very well. Day adeptly tiptoed around a question about how Woods played, but his answer was revealing nonetheless.

“We were both out there just ... I mean ... I wasn’t really watching too much,” Day said. “He hit a few squirrely ones here and there, but once again, it was just practice. He didn’t look like he was concentrating too much, just kind of going around having a look at the course.”

Day loved the chance to play with Woods. They arranged it before this week. They laughed easily coming up the ninth fairway at the end of their practice round, and again leaving the green. Day said Woods seemed in good spirits.

“Everything seemed all right to me,” Day said. “I don’t know where he’s at mentally. I don’t ask him about personal stuff. It’s none of my business to ask about that stuff.”

Day knows the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course will ask the tough questions of Woods and everyone else come Thursday. Dye’s design usually leaves everyone pretty much wanting a hug when they’re done playing.