- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SAN DIEGO | Tiger Woods was in stoic spin mode yesterday as he addressed golf’s most pressing sore subject.

Eight weeks removed from a third career arthroscopic surgery on his leading, left knee, the 13-time major champion is just a day away from making his return to the game … ready or not.

“I feel very good about coming in and playing,” Woods said at Torrey Pines, where the U.S. Open begins Thursday. “I feel good about my practices, my preparation, coming back to a golf course I’ve had some success at. I’m just really looking forward to getting out there and playing. … [My knee] is a little sore but not anything I haven’t dealt with before.”

Actually, the physical uncertainty facing Woods this week probably trumps anything he has experienced in his career. Emotionally, he’s far more prepared to play than he was after his last comparable layoff; Woods sat out six weeks after the death of his father in May 2006, arrived at Winged Foot without his signature focus and proceeded to miss his first cut in a major as a professional.

This time, the primary question mark is obviously physical. The 32-year-old Woods admitted yesterday he hasn’t walked 18 holes since the Masters. He played 17 holes in a cart at Torrey Pines last Wednesday and played nine holes walking each of the last three days. As recently as three weeks ago, he wasn’t sure he would even be able to complete four rounds.

“The week prior to Memorial, I wasn’t feeling good enough where I was a hundred percent sure I could play all four days,” said Woods, who won the Open in 2000 and 2002. “But then my leg started getting a lot better quickly.”

Still, “better” isn’t well, nor is it competition tested.

Said Woods: “Is it fully recovered? Probably not. Oh, well.”

If this were any other player on any other course, the notion of contending given such circumstances would seem ludicrous. But skepticism has never kept comfortable company with Woods.

Conventional wisdom said he couldn’t leave his driver win at home and win at Hoylake, but Woods tamed the 2006 British Open with his teeth gritted and a 4-iron in his hands. Conventional wisdom said he couldn’t win on a tight, twisty par-70 track like Southern Hills, but Tiger trashed the field at last year’s PGA Championship.

Again this week, conventional wisdom says Woods can’t win on one wheel.

“I’ve heard that before,” Woods said yesterday, allowing himself a rare self-satisfied smile.

Perhaps Sergio Garcia put it best:

“It’s like Big Brown. With a crack in his hoof, he was still the favorite.”

When a reporter asked the Spaniard how that turned out for the Triple Crown hopeful, Garcia grinned back: “He still finished top 10.”

Woods has never finished out of the top 10 at Torrey Pines. In 11 starts at the Buick Invitational, Woods has recorded six victories, four top-fives and a top-10, including triumphs in each of the last four events.

His scoring average in 43 rounds in the tournament (skewed slightly by 11 rounds on the easier North Course) is 68.33.

The 7,643-yard, par-72 by the Pacific Ocean always has been kind to Woods in its winter incarnation. And the USGA has been unusually generous with this week’s setup. It seems initial reports concerning the layout’s unpredictably nasty kikuyu rough were greatly exaggerated.

Not only has the USGA decided to grade the rough, increasing its length farther from the fairway, it also has gifted this week’s field with atypically wide fairways. The greens are running much faster than during the Buick Invitational. But from tee-to-green, the South Course looks far more like standard tour setup than the Open’s typical testament to attrition.

“They’ve cut away a good bit of the rough around the edge of the fairways, and the fairways are generous,” British Open champion Padraig Harrington said after making his second tour of the property Tuesday. “The course is very playable.”

That’s good news for Woods, who didn’t need the added physical stress of combating hip-high kikuyu. Tiger’s Achilles’ heel always has been the occasional wayward drive. That habit probably explains why he has won fewer U.S. Opens than green jackets (four), claret jugs (three) and Wanamaker Trophies (four). But given the USGA’s sudden generosity, perhaps that tendency won’t cost him like it often has at previous Opens.

Another mitigating factor in Tiger’s defense is his performance at the Masters. Playing in pain at Augusta National, Woods finished in second, three strokes behind winner Trevor Immelman, despite not making a putt all week. Woods was putting almost entirely off his right leg.

Perhaps Woods’ greatest concern will be competitive rust. He hasn’t played competitively for two months, much less been in the Sunday mix.

“It’s just a matter of getting into the competitive rhythm and flow of the round,” Woods said. “It’s how far the ball is flying. How your body is feeling. The shape of shots, what you feel you can and can’t hit. … Hopefully I can get into that rhythm and understand what’s going on very quickly.”

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