On paper a man can sound like a real catch. He might be a global celebrity with an enormous yacht and a Florida mega-mansion. He might even be one of the greatest athletes of his generation. But if his name happens to be Tiger Woods, dates can be hard to come by. A little over three years ago, the once squeaky-clean golf star’s reputation and marriage to Elin Nordegren imploded in a sex scandal that featured escorts, salacious text messages and no fewer than 12 women claiming to have slept with Woods. No wonder it’s taken him a little time to get his romantic life in order.
But on March 18, Woods, 37, announced that he had found romance again, revealing that he is dating Lindsey Vonn, 28, the fresh-faced skiing star and Olympic gold medalist. The relationship had been rumored for over a month, but neither athlete would address the chatter. Then, in simultaneous Facebook posts, the unlikely couple went public. “Over the last few months we have become very close and are now dating,” said Woods in his statement, while Vonn shared, “I guess it wasn’t a well-kept secret. Our relationship evolved from friendship into something more … and it has made me very happy.”
To which millions of American women might reasonably be expected to respond in unison, “Are you nuts?” But Vonn, who split from her husband of four years, Thomas, in November 2011, seems undeterred by her boyfriend’s admitted adultery and 45-day-long stay in rehab, reportedly for sex addiction. “She’s not freaked out by his past,” says a source close to Woods. “They have sat down and talked it out more than once. He has explained his side and owned up to what he did wrong. He has been honest with her.”
The couple, who met in April 2012 at a Las Vegas fund-raiser for Woods’s charity, have spent quality time together since February, when a devastating injury at the Alpine World Championships in Austria left Vonn with torn ligaments in her right knee and a fractured shin. After Woods flew Vonn home on his private jet to recuperate in Vail, Colo.—a gesture that kick-started the romance buzz—he was at her side during surgery, and recently the two enjoyed downtime aboard Woods’s luxury yacht Privacy in Florida. Vonn has even spent time with Woods’s two children, Sam, 5, and Charlie, 4. “Tiger has been really supportive as she recovers from her injuries,” says a Vonn pal. “They really have a lot in common,” adds the Woods source. “They are focused, driven people who like to compete. Also, they both know what it’s like to have outside people judging them. They’re actually a lot alike. She’s a bit more trusting, open.”
Outside of Thomas Vonn, her one-time coach and manager whom she met at age 16 and married six years later, the Minnesota-born Vonn has little dating experience. “I got married when I was 22, [and] I’m excited to be single for the first time in my life,” Vonn told PEOPLE last fall when the prospect of finding love again still seemed remote. “Where am I going to meet someone? I don’t go out. I’m not going to date a skier. I feel like I connect better with athletes, but I don’t even know where to begin!”
But having found a strong connection with Woods, those in the couple’s circle insist, the skier is going into the relationship with her eyes wide open. “She isn’t concerned about what others think,” says a source close to Vonn. “She trusts her instincts and has gotten to know him really well. She is very comfortable with the relationship.”
That may be because Woods has been more forthcoming with her than with the public about his postdivorce self-improvement. “You haven’t heard about all the counseling he has gotten,” says the source close to Woods. “He has now been working for three years to become a better man. He’s not perfect, he knows that. But he’s a lot more trustworthy than he was back in 2009. When it all happened, he [said] he would never do to another woman what he did to Elin. I believe that he meant that.”
Nordegren, who recently began dating coal magnate Chris Cline, reportedly approves of Woods’s new relationship. “Since Elin and Tiger share parenting, Elin is more supportive of what Tiger does if he stays away from low-life women,” says a source close to Nordegren. “A serious relationship with a decent person makes things easier. But she doesn’t hold much hope that he will ever change.”
One undeniable change is his place on the golf leaderboard. After his pro career spun into free fall in the wake of the sex scandal—he went from the No. 1 player in the world to a humiliating No. 58 and lost millions in endorsement deals—Woods has made an impressive comeback, nabbing his 76th career PGA Tour win on March 10 and edging back up to No. 2 ranking in the world. What’s more, he is heavily favored to win the Masters next month.
But it’s what he’s won off the green that has him pleasantly surprised. “Something nice that’s happened off the course was meeting Lindsey Vonn,” Woods said in his March 18 statement. “We want to continue our relationship, privately, as an ordinary couple and continue to compete as athletes.”
Even those in Woods’s circle acknowledge the pairing has more potential downsides for Vonn, who is the most decorated skier in U.S. history and has an eye on the 2014 Olympics. “She gains nothing by being publicly linked to Tiger,” says a source close to Woods. “She’s not in this for any other reason than that they have a real connection. To find a woman like Lindsey who is willing to be with him, well, that’s a very good thing. She’s very brave.”