CHARLOTTE - Paparazzi still lurk. Helicopters often hover. Rumors always swirl. Tiger Woods talks about returning to normalcy.
The first three always will be truths. "Everybody is the media, even the lady behind the counter in the Krispy Kreme shop," Phil Mickelson said Wednesday.
And the other - normalcy? Can Tiger Woods ever live a celebrity's version of a normal life again?
Talk about his golf game, and the answer is "yes." He will win more, probably many more, golf tournaments, and perhaps the next will be the Quail Hollow Championship that begins today.
Talk about his carefully cultivated persona that shattered in November like a piece of fine china dropping onto a cement floor, and the answer is more difficult. Admiring his golf excellence is one thing; forgetting his morally reprehensible conduct is another. Woods is hardly the first person to fail morally, but the perception of perfection on and off the course made the fall so precipitous.
He opens the second chapter of his attempt to rebuild his image this week, and his actions suggest he understands the challenge. The stoic player who in the past often ignored autograph requests signed willingly Wednesday. He posed for pictures with fans during his pro-am round. He chatted with his playing partners. The tabloids would have to look elsewhere for their fodder on this day.
"(Golf) has been more fun, no doubt," he said. "I've had a lot of struggles internally for a while now, and that's one of the reasons why it wasn't that much fun. The game is now where it used to be, and that's where it should be.
"It should be fun, and it is a game, Even though I do it for a living, it's still a game, and it wasn't that way for a while."
The reason - marital infidelity - was self-inflicted, and he became a punch line for comedians and provided an endless stream of copy for the sensationalized press.
Woods ended his self-imposed exile, which included time in a rehabilitation program, at the Masters three weeks ago with mixed results in the image-rebuilding department. He interacted with fans in pre-tournament rounds, but microphones picked up some blue language.
Despite the rust, he finished tied for fourth at Augusta. He expressed displeasure with his play - and critics panned him for his perceived arrogant attitude.
"I wasn't very happy I lost," he said Wednesday after his pro-am around. "But given a little time to reflect on it, it was an incredible week. I think it went as well as it could have possibly gone. Obviously, I did not do what I needed to do on the weekend, but overall, after not playing for that long and come back and finishing fourth, I think that's pretty reasonable."
"Amazing" might be a better adjective. His well-documented domestic difficulties drastically altered his golf schedule.
"Usually after I come of out the (PGA Tour's) West Coast swing, I feel pretty good about my game," he said, noting he generally plays in three events before the Florida portion of the schedule. "Coming into Florida, I fine-tuned a few things and then show up at Augusta. That's been a bit different this year.
"Probably the biggest negative golf-wise would have to be the fact that I didn't have any prep time. I had to put so much effort into my practice sessions" seeking to simulate the same emotions and intensity of tournament golf.
Asked if the PGA Tour delayed his return with a suspension, Woods said, "No, nothing like that. I just started practicing a few weeks prior to Bay Hill. I wasn't anywhere near being ready to compete at this level. Just like Jack (Nicklaus) says sometimes, (his golf) wasn't ready for public consumption."
His pro-am round started at 7:30 on a morning when the temperature struggled to tickle 40 degrees, and sweaters replaced short-sleeve shirts. His gallery swelled throughout the round. Others played in relative solitude; he played before multitudes.
He needed three holes to find his tempo and called his round "scratchy."
"I hit some bad tee shots, some bad iron shots, bad chips, bad putts," he said. Then, flashing a smile, he added, "I still shot under par somehow."
That part of his life - golf - will be fine. But he said Wednesday his schedule remains a work in progress due to "personal things" - an answer that fans the fire of speculation. There will be no escaping the microscope. One magazine wondered about his endorsement future - "Is Tiger Inc. Dead?" - and critics scorned him for attending a rock concert with his marriage on the rocks.
"Going forward, I need to be a better man," Woods said at the Masters.
In an ad for Accenture, one of the companies that dropped him, Woods is standing on a creek bank with his golf ball on the rocks below. The copy says, "It's what you do next that counts."
That's the best way to sum up his challenge.