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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Updated: March 20, 7:05 PM ET
Tiger Woods shows a fresh face

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- On so many different levels, Tiger Woods' life is nothing like ours -- unless your life includes the following five things:

-- Your girlfriend owns more gold than the Franklin Mint.

-- You and the planet's most famous skier just conducted a pre-emptive surgical strike against the "stalkarazzi."

-- You and Arnold Palmer share the cover of the best-selling golf video game franchise.

-- You're a victory away from reclaiming the No. 1 world ranking.

-- There's already a billboard of you (and the wristwatch you endorse) in place near the Interstate 20 exit leading to Augusta National Golf Club.

This is the sometimes strange, surreal existence of Woods. He is larger than life. He is a global brand. He speaks ... or dates ... or wins and it gets microwaved into instant news.

But as he slouched comfortably in a dinged-up, black leather chair during his Wednesday news conference at Arnie's tournament, Woods struck me as a guy who has finally found something that eluded him for years.

Happiness. Even contentment.

Who knows for sure, but Woods sounds and looks as if he's whole again. Or close to it.

His game is healthy. His knees and Achilles are healthy. His state of mind is healthy. The fire hydrant incident seems like epochs ago.

Woods would be the first (OK, maybe second) to say that much of his former personal misery was self-inflicted. Combine that with a series of debilitating injuries and you had a man in personal and professional crisis.

That version of Woods no longer exists. That version of Woods put razor wire around his thoughts and didn't allow anyone inside. He was a work in progress.

But you should have heard him Wednesday. He spoke about the past, present and future, and did so without putting a word count on his answers. His deflector shields were lowered, not all the way, of course, but enough to see that the 2013 version of Woods is in a much better place than the 2009, 2010 and 2011 versions.

He spoke about his girlfriend, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, and their decision to release photos of them as a couple. By doing so, he kneecapped anyone trying to score the first photo.

"We're very happy where we're at, but also we wanted to limit the stalkarazzi and all those sleazy websites that are out there following us," said Woods.

He spoke about his father, Earl, and how badly he wanted to win the 2006 Masters for his old man, who would die a month after the tournament from prostate cancer.

"I've lost tournaments before," said Woods, "and I've been through some tough defeats over the years, but nothing like that because I knew my dad would never live to see another major championship ... There's never been another defeat that felt like that."

And he spoke not only about his quest to regain the No. 1 ranking in the world, but about reconfiguring his golf legacy.

Question: "Do you think you can become as good as you once were?"

Woods: "I don't want to become as good as I once was. No, I don't. I want to become better."

There are those who don't like or respect Woods. They refuse to put a statute of limitations on his past personal mistakes.

But Woods has earned the right to be happy. He served his humiliating sentence in full public view. He did his time. If he and Vonn want to give the power couple thing a go, then I wish them all the best. After all, everybody deserves to write their own third act.

It's good to see Woods with a bounce in his step, rather than a limp. It's nice to hear him cracking wise. It's a gas to see him playing well.

"I didn't have the doubt that I think people might have expected," he said. "I just felt that I needed to get healthy enough where things just didn't hurt."

He was talking about his assorted physical injuries, but he could have been talking about his mind too. Now he has Vonn and, by all indications, he and his golf swing are going steady too.

The King himself -- Palmer -- has followed Woods' career from the very beginning. He has offered his advice to Woods throughout the years and it's no coincidence that Tiger routinely pays homage to Palmer. Woods has also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational seven different times, including in 2012.

Palmer is 83, but he knows greatness when he sees it. And he sees it again with Woods.

"I think right now looking at him and watching him play as I have recently, he looks probably as strong and as good from a golf perspective as I've ever seen him."

If Woods wins this week, he overtakes Rory McIlroy and returns to world No. 1 for the first time since October 2010. In November 2011, Woods was ranked as low as 58th.

But the bigger question revolves not around world rankings, but world records. Quite simply, can Woods win five more majors to surpass the 18 championships won by Jack Nicklaus?

"I give him a chance," said Palmer. "I give him a chance to do the record."

I give him more than a chance. His game and his life are trending the right way. I can very easily see Bubba Watson slipping a green jacket on Woods on the evening of April 14.

Woods' fame and fortune separate him from us. But then you remind yourself that he's a divorced dad. That he's trying to do right by his two kids. That he wants to give this relationship thing another try.

We can relate to that. We can root for a happy ending to that third act.