April 05, 2018 11:22 AM

Things haven’t been easy for Tiger Woods since 2009.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Woods got into a minor car crash outside his home in Windermere, Florida. That little accident, which happened days after tabloids accused him of cheating on then-wife Elin Nordegren, was the catalyst for a shocking sex scandal as numerous women came forward alleging extramarital affairs with the pro-golfer.

The scandal derailed everything in Woods’ life. He ultimately divorced Nordegren, reportedly paying her a staggering $100 million divorce settlement. His career suffered as well. He lost millions of dollars in endorsements and was no longer the untouchable A-lister he had once been. The perennial #1 golfer started losing tournaments or skipping them entirely. His ranking plummeted; as of last November, he was at #1,199.

He also suffered back pain so excruciating that he recently told ESPN that for months he needed help getting out of bed.

But now, Woods is recovering professionally. After a strong showing at tournaments earlier this year, he just made his much-heralded return to Augusta National on Thursday, teeing off for the first round of the 2018 Masters.

The four-time Masters champion told PGATour.com it’s been “hard” to attend the event as a spectator while battling injuries, but declares that “this year is going to be different. This year I’m healthy and I can play. I can compete.”

“Just a few more days until Augusta. I’m excited!” he also tweeted last week.

So how is the 42-year-old golfer feeling about things? PEOPLE spoke to three sources in his circle — two professional associates and one personal friend — and all of them say that he is feeling optimistic about his future.

“Tiger looks and sounds better than he has in years,” says a golf insider who has regular interactions with Woods. “He’s more upbeat, talking about the future. He’s putting everything negative behind him: the scandal, the DUI, everything. He’s a new man.”

RELATED VIDEO: Lindsey Vonn Calls Leaked Nude Photos Of Her & Ex Tiger Woods A ‘Despicable Invasion Of Privacy’

After the scandal, Woods changed most of his team. He hired a new caddy and swing coach. He also had a series of surgeries that limited his ability to play the sport.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty

“For a long time, there was a cloud over Tiger,” the insider continues. “He had his surgeries, his setbacks. He’s only human, and those things were like a weight on his shoulders. But today, he’s happier than he’s been in years.”

So what sparked this newfound happiness?

“When he was dating Lindsey [Vonn], he was happy,” says the personal friend. “That was a turning point for him. And it ended, but not in a bad way. Here’s the thing about Tiger: he hadn’t really had amicable breakups before. So having an adult relationship with someone that ended in a not-horrible way was good for him.”

Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn in 2014

Woods and Vonn, who still keep in touch, split in 2015 after almost three years together. Both have moved on, but they still occasionally email or text each other. In fact, Vonn told PEOPLE last month that Woods emailed her to wish her good luck before her Olympic races.

“There’s no animosity,” says the friend. “There’s no bad blood. Zero.”

The friend tells PEOPLE that Woods also delights in his two kids: daughter Sam, 10, and son Charlie, 9. “They’ve been a constant in all of this,” the friend says. “Elin has never once used them against him. Not once. He can see them anytime he wants. He can talk to them every day, all day, if that’s what he wants to do. He spends a lot of time with them.”

Tiger Woods and his children at the U.S. Open in 2017
Larry Marano/Shutterstock/Rex

Nodegren acknowledged as much in a 2014 interview with PEOPLE.

“I have moved on and I am in a good place,” she said. “My relationship with Tiger is centered around our children and we are doing really good – we really are – and I am so happy that is the case. He is a great father.”

So is Woods dating someone new? The athlete has been spotted out with girlfriend Erica Herman several times.

Erica Herman and Tiger Woods in October 2017
Splash News

“No one has signed any paperwork,” the friend laughs. “It’s not like they’re pledging their lives to each other. But she’s really nice and Tiger likes her.”

“Tiger doesn’t like to be alone,” continues the friend. “But he doesn’t like to settle. Not anymore. So when he’s with someone, he really needs to be into her.”

Whatever happens to Woods’ professional career, sources say he’s in a very healthy frame of mind. “He’s gotten things together,” says the second PGA source close to Woods. “He’s living a great life.”

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