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BUICK INVITATIONAL Following surgery, Tiger tries to regain championship form



Published: Mon, February 10, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Woods has not played competitive golf since the Dec. 12 operation.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's time for Tiger Woods to get back to work.

Woods, who spent the last two months recovering from knee surgery, will end the longest layoff of his career next week when he returns to the PGA Tour in San Diego.

"Things are progressing nicely, and I will officially enter the Buick Invitational on Thursday," Woods said on his Web site.

In a conference call last week, Woods reported no pain in his left knee. He played 18 holes for the first time Tuesday with his father and shot 66.

"The real test comes next week at Torrey Pines," he said. "That's when I will find out how the knee holds up in competition and what, if any, effect walking the course has on it."

Good opportunity

The Buick Invitational is a good spot for him to return.

Along with having an endorsement deal with Buick, Woods won the tournament in 1999 and has never finished worse than fifth.

Plus, it will give him a chance to visit with Phil Mickelson, one of his chief rivals who caused a buzz this week by saying Woods has "inferior" clubs and is the only player "good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."

Mickelson later said his comments to Golf Magazine were taken out of context and that he meant to explain Woods' talent.

"I heard it was said in fun and jest, but until I talk to him, I really don't know," Woods said. "Quite frankly, questioning my equipment is foolish. I'm not going to play with anything that is going to hold me back. My career will be judged on how much I've won."

No one has won more than Woods among active players. He has 34 victories on the PGA Tour, and has an 8-0 margin on Mickelson in the majors.

"I really don't worry about other players or what they think," Woods said. "The real measuring stick on the PGA Tour is how much you win, and that is what drives me to compete at such a high level."

Surgery

Woods has never missed more than five weeks since turning pro, but recurring pain in his left knee forced him to have arthroscopic surgery Dec. 12 to remove fluid and benign cysts that caused his ligaments to swell.

Doctors cleared him to practice without restriction on Jan. 25, and he reported no pain. Woods said his knee hurt so much at times last year that he felt sick to his stomach and sometimes took painkilling injections.

He still won six times around the world, including two majors.

"I haven't been my best for a couple of years now, so that part I'm really excited about -- not waking up every day ... having to look forward to the day of walking and playing because my knee's hurting so bad," he said.

Woods has hardly been idle. He has been riding exercise bikes, running and lifting weights during his rehabilitation, and said his stamina is good.

The only question mark is rust, although Woods historically has played well following four- and five-week layoffs.

"As far as my expectations, they won't change," he said. "I always go into a tournament expecting to win. Of course, I have to be realistic, too. I haven't played competitive golf since early December, and I'm coming off knee surgery.

"If my body is not ready to perform, there is nothing I can do."

What's at stake

There will be plenty at stake in San Diego. Woods ended last year having made 96 consecutive cuts, a streak that has taken him five years to amass. He is 18 tour events away from breaking Byron Nelson's record of 113.

A year ago at Torrey Pines, Woods had to make a tricky 5-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole of the second round just so he wouldn't miss the cut. He eventually tied for fifth.

He also finds himself behind in his pursuit of a record fifth consecutive PGA Tour money title. Ernie Els won the first two PGA Tour events and has $1.8 million. Vijay Singh won the Phoenix Open and also appears poised to have a big year.

Still, Woods doesn't play much early in the year and he has missed only two tournaments he normally plays -- the season-opening Mercedes Championships and Pebble Beach, which he had planned to skip even before surgery.




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