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Heat is still on Tiger

The bravest question thrown at Tiger Woods during his second news conference since his sex scandal came near the end of the 17-minute session.

Woods is playing in Charlotte, at the Quail Hollow Championship, his first tournament since the Masters and was asked whether he worried about "temptation" now that he was on the road again.

There was no need to elaborate on what kind of temptation.

"No," Woods replied, "Not at all, not after what I've been through."

It was an honest answer from a man who's clearly been beaten down by stress of the past five months.

"Mentally, yeah, it's taken a huge toll on him," said a close source to Woods.

Sporting a goatee -- which may or, as happened at the Masters, may not survive once the tournament starts -- Woods seemed Wednesday like a man burdened with heavy thoughts.

He was evasive about what tournaments he'd play this season. Why? "Personal things," he said.

That was a veiled reference to his marriage, which is not in a very good state.

And neither has the heat let up on him in general. He was criticized last week for attending a Nickelback concert when he should've been doing, what? Sitting at home in an empty house?

"Yeah, I went to the concert, had a great time," he said, "A couple of the band members are friends of mine, and that's why I went. I just had a great time. And unfortunately I got criticized for seeing my friends."

And afterward he had to deal with the tabloid stalkers who've become a fact of life.

"There's paparazzi everywhere -- at home, helicopters here and there, people driving by, paparazzi camping out in front of the gates. That hasn't changed," he said.

Sean O'Hair, who's the defending champion at Quail Hollow, was so appalled at what his friend's gone through he publicly went to bat for him Wednesday. Of course, he did so by throwing Kobe Bryant, who went through his own sexual misadventures a few years ago, under the bus.

"You see a lot of these guys who have done worse things. I mean, Kobe is a good example," he said.

"It's not like (Woods) broke any law. He didn't go out and rob somebody or kill somebody or anything like that."

Whether the chicken came first or the egg, it's true that Woods didn't play particularly well during his pro-am round Wednesday.

"Today it was scratchy," he said, "I hit some bad tee shots, some bad iron shots, bad chips, bad putts, but I still shot under par somehow."

He said he'd been initially disappointed after the Masters -- he had a chance to win but made 10 bogeys on the weekend -- but upon reflection realized that given everything, his tie-for-fourth was "incredible"."

O'Hair wholeheartedly agreed.

"It's amazing to me," he said, "He didn't play one event since Thanksgiving, and he shows up at the Masters with no prior preparation as far as a golf tournament and finishes fourth and is obviously disappointed. That's a whole 'nother level.

"If I was in that position, I mean, making the cut is a positive week. His expectations are completely different. Honestly, if I was in his head, I don't know if I could really comprehend some of the things that he maybe thinks about."

Woods may be obstinate but he knows his golf swing needs to become more reliable. To that end, he said he's "been working on a few things from Augusta."

"I had five months off, and I knew things weren't going to be quite right," he said. "There were some things I didn't like in my golf swing, so I started to work on that, simplify things a little bit, got everything more fine-tuned, and I feel very comfortable."

Part of the problem, he said, was that historically he uses the West Coast swing to get his game into shape. His first tournament is usually at Torrey Pines, where he'd win blindfolded, so that always helped his confidence.

"Usually, after I come out of the West Coast swing, I usually feel pretty good about my game," he said. "Coming into Florida, fine-tune a few things and now show up at Augusta. This year has been a little bit different."

Although the game isn't sharp, he's at least not carrying the burden of the secret life he'd been living.

"It's been more fun, no doubt," he said of competing.

"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 for a while."

Golf's certainly fun nowadays for Phil Mickelson, who Wednesday called his fourth major at Augusta last month "probably the most important win that I've had."

"Not because of having not won a major in four years or what happened at (the 2006 U.S. Open at) Winged Foot or anything like that, but because of the emotional tie and the tough year that we've had this past year and being able to share it (with his family)," he said.

Mickelson also fired a warning shot to his rivals: he was re-tooling his game to be more consistent with his eye on the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach next month.

"I finished second in the U.S. Open five times," he said, "It's my national open. Growing up here, that's a special event for me.

"I really want to give myself the best opportunity in the U.S. Open. I had a good chance last year, a couple of years I've had great chances and haven't come through, and it's the one event that I'd love to win.

"With this tournament being at Pebble, of course I've had success (there), I've played a number of times and know very well. I feel like there's a good opportunity there, and so I don't want to look past that."

While Mickelson's looking to reach for the stars, Woods was hoping just to get his old life back.

"I have to say this feels a heck of a lot more normal than the Masters did," he said. "I think just two weeks in a row competing, I'll have a better barometer of what normalcy really feels like because I haven't done that in a while."

Not that anyone's selling Woods short.

"I don't want to step on anybody's toes here," said O'Hair, "But when Tiger tees it up, he's top-tenning every event. I don't think there's anybody else that does that."

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