Eager Woods Near Return

Times Staff Writer

Six weeks after he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Tiger Woods said he wasn't able to practice hitting his driver until Saturday, feels no pain in his knee, is eager to start his season and expects to play his normal schedule leading up to the Masters, where he will try to become the first player to win three in succession.

"I may be a little bit rusty," Woods told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. "Playing my way into shape is going to take a little time. But as far as getting out there and competing, I'll be ready more mentally as soon as I know that physically I can handle it."

Woods had surgery Dec. 12 to drain fluid inside and outside the anterior cruciate ligament and to remove a benign cyst. He said there were times last year when he thought he wouldn't be able to play because of the pain in his knee. One of those occasions was the night before the last round of his tournament at Sherwood Country Club, the Target World Challenge, which ended four days before he had surgery.

"It was brutal," Woods said. "There were a lot of times I didn't want to go out there and play just because I felt nauseous in my stomach because the pain was so great."

Woods said he hid his condition from even those closest to him.

"It was a good acting job, actually," he said.

Being able to hit his driver is the key to Woods' comeback, and it was the final club in his bag he used in his practices at his home at Isleworth, near Orlando, Fla. Woods said the pain was gone almost immediately, and at the same time, his swing returned just as swiftly.

"My swing has naturally come back, knowing the fact that my knee now is pain-free and is stable," Woods said.

He also said he will not play in next week's AT&T; Pebble Beach National Pro-Am but is pointing toward the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines the week of Feb. 10 as his debut. He hinted he plans to play a normal schedule leading up to the Masters, which might mean four consecutive weeks: Torrey Pines, the Nissan Open at Riviera, the match play event at La Costa and a European PGA Tour event at Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

He said his schedule depends on how well his knee responds to the rigors of tournament golf.

"If I'm not feeling that great, then, obviously, I'm going to have to reduce the schedule," he said.

At Augusta, Woods will be on track to set a record if he wins his third consecutive Masters title. He said he would not be distracted if there are protests over the campaign by the National Council of Women's Organizations to persuade Augusta National to admit a female member.

"I'll be fine," he said. "You know, once it's time to play, it's time to play. And whether it's all the things going on outside the gates or whether it's the fact that I'm trying to win three in a row, all that goes away once it's time to tee it up and go."

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