Woods has singular focus on winning 14th major at U.S. Open

BETHESDA, Md. -- Tiger Woods strode into the interview room at Congressional Country Club on Tuesday, swiftly hopped up two steps and took a seat on the dais to promote next month's AT&T National. We can safely report that he owned no discernible paunch from a two-month layoff, hasn't returned to that god-awful patchwork blond hairdo of a few years back and, most importantly, walked without favoring the left knee that required arthroscopic surgery on April 15.

In fact, the Tiger Woods who sat behind a podium answering questions for some 45 minutes looked very much like the same Tiger Woods who was last seen in a public forum at Augusta National, exiting the final green as a runner-up to eventual Masters champion Trevor Immelman. Any questions about his form at that point revolved around a lackluster putting performance, while knowledge of the knee injury was kept under wraps until he went under the knife two days later. Now it's the first thing on everybody's mind, because Woods will have played no tournament rounds between that evening in Augusta and the U.S. Open, taking place in two weeks.

And -- surprise, surprise --- the upcoming festivities at Torrey Pines are of foremost importance in the eyes of the 13-time major winner.

"The whole idea," Woods said, "is to be ready for the U.S. Open."

Woods decided to forgo this week's Memorial Tournament in favor of furthering his recuperation and rehabilitation in advance of the year's second major. So far that includes riding the bike ("It gets really old," he said), hitting every club in the bag (including the driver) and, yes, even teeing it up for 18 holes when the knee feels up to it.

While some reports suggested Woods had a slight limp in his walk Tuesday, we're left to guess at how he is truly progressing. For the most part, Woods provided canned, cautious responses about his current workout regimen Tuesday, but he did allow that 59 days off from competitive play -- from the final round of the Masters to the opening round of the Open -- isn't exactly the preparation he envisions for success.

"It would be nice having a feel going into any tournament, really," said Woods, who owns three victories in five PGA Tour starts this season. "Kind of an understanding what the misses might be, what they have been. … And I don't have that opportunity."

Then again, Woods was quick to point out that the last time he underwent similar surgery on the left knee -- in late 2002 -- he returned to win the Buick Invitational (at Torrey Pines, no less) and three of his first four starts to begin the 2003 season.

"I know what it takes to win a tournament coming back after having a procedure done, and it is just a matter of being prepared, getting all my practice time in, making sure my shots are how I want them, trying to understand what my misses might be," he said. "But you don't really know until you get under tournament heat what your misses are going to be. Hopefully I can rectify them if that happens.

"My whole idea is obviously to have the lowest score at the end of the week. I will do everything I can to be ready like I am for each and every other major."

Those in the pro-Woods camp will point to that previous successful comeback from knee surgery, his length advantage on the 7,643-yard course, and, well, the simple fact that he's better than everybody else as potential reasons to be cautiously optimistic that he can win major No. 14 in two weeks. Meanwhile, cynics will claim Woods' lack of a U.S. Open victory since 2002, his recent downtime away from the golf course and the fact that the knee is still bothering him as a rationale for viewing the glass as half-empty.

Yep, that's right. Six weeks after surgery and the knee is still not pain-free.

"It is more stiffness than anything. Trying to get the muscle to fire back and get those things developing again. That's the main thing right now, keeping my endurance up," said Woods, who revealed that the surgery was planned some two to three weeks prior to the Masters and still would have been performed had he won the green jacket. "As far as the rehab, it's been basically right on pace. It's cautious. It's been slow. It's been boring. But the leg is starting to gain some strength.

"You know, I am not a patient kind of guy when it comes to that. I always want to go all out. Sometimes it is hard for me not to do that, but [I've] got to be smart about it. And I've done that."

Despite the exploits of top-10 performers Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott in Woods' absence, the golf world misses its No. 1 player and global icon. The feeling, he claims, is mutual.

"I miss it. I miss mixing it up with the boys. I miss the heat of being in there, in contention with everything on the line, trying to pull off a shot. That's fun to me. That's why I prepare, and that's what I love to do," Woods said. "I'm really looking forward to the Open and getting out there and mixing it up with the boys again."

Coming off his recent hibernation, Tiger Woods still looks the part of the world's best golfer, still acts the part of a man hungry for more titles. Whether he still plays the part of champion at Torrey Pines remains to be seen.