THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) Tiger Woods wore sneakers instead of spikes. He sat next to a bottle of Gatorade Tiger, not the silver U.S. Open trophy. One thing that didn't change at his first press conference in 184 days were questions about his left knee.
But after speaking for a half-hour Wednesday at Sherwood Country Club, covering everything from his rehab to his caddie to his improbable victory at Torrey Pines, the most powerful statement about his health and future required no words at all.
\nDoes he have any doubts he will be better than before?
Woods turned up the bottom of his lip, shook his head three times and mumbled, "Uh-uh," as if that had never entered his mind.
Six months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair a ruptured ligament his third surgery in six years Woods said he was right on schedule to return, already hitting short irons and excited about playing on a leg that has never been more stable.
"I've just been training and trying to get healthy enough to compete next year," Woods said. "Everything has been right on schedule. I couldn't have asked for anything more."
The uncertainty is when he will return, and how his leg will respond when he goes through a full practice.
His plan was to start hitting balls in January, but he already has been chipping and putting, and taking full swings with small clubs, shots that go no more than 100 yards.
"I haven't hit full shots with my entire bag yet," Woods said. "As far as coming back, I don't know. I don't know how it's going to respond with repeated practice days and long days of practice trying to get back, and ultimately playing my way into shape. That's obviously going to take a little bit of time."
He is thankful to be merely the host this week of his Chevron World Challenge temperatures felt like the upper 30s even before a light rain fell at Sherwood. Woods won last year by seven shots, and this is the fifth time this year he could not defend a title.
The last meaningful shot he took was a tap-in for par on the 19th hole in a Monday playoff at the U.S. Open, a victory that even Woods finds hard to believe. He played that week with the torn ligament and a double stress fracture, and spoke about a left knee with so much swelling at night that he couldn't see his kneecap.
"As I've progressed through my shorter clubs, hitting fuller shots, you remember what it was like when you hit a full shot," he said. "And for me, the last time I really hit a full shot was at the Open. It didn't feel very good."
In the few shots he has taken over the past few weeks, the leg has felt better than ever.
Woods said he has tried not to snap his left leg at impact over the last couple of years, but his knee ligaments wouldn't allow for it. When he had surgery at the end of the 2002 season to drain fluid and clean out cartilage, he said doctors told him he only had about 20 percent of his anterior cruciate ligament left.
"The fact I made it this far was amazing without rupturing it," he said.
He made adjustments to compensate, and now is remembering what it was like to have two good legs.
"Right now, it feels great to have that stability in the leg," he said. "It feels stronger, more stable. It's not sliding all over the place. My bones aren't moving. Things that I was dealing with, I don't feel that anymore. I'm actually stronger in my legs than I think I've ever been."\n
Even so, he remains cautious about the ligament regaining full strength. That's what makes the timing of his return uncertain.
Woods had surgery a week after the U.S. Open, missing the final two majors won by Padraig Harrington, a Ryder Cup that produced a rare U.S. victory, and the emergence of Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas as potential challengers when he returns.
He missed the competition, but saw plenty of benefits from the time away.
"On one level, it's been absolutely something I'd never want to do again," Woods said. "And the on another part, it's been just the greatest time in the world. Training every day, it's been a little rough at times, but getting through it. But being able to spend time at home with Sam and watch her grow, it's something I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do."
Woods turns 33 at the end of the month, already with 14 majors and 65 victories on the PGA Tour.
He is closing in on the hallowed mark of Jack Nicklaus 18 professional majors, the one record Woods cares about and 2009 sets up well for him. Along with the Masters, the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage Black, where Woods won in 2002, and he was runner-up by one shot at Hazeltine, site of next year's PGA Championship.
He has been saying for years that he will walk away when his best isn't good enough to win. But his longest break from golf might have given him a glimpse of what it's like to stop playing.
"I don't want to play when I know I can't play at this level, at the highest of levels," he said. "If you wanted me to go out there and play right now, I couldn't stand to go out there and not be able to fully compete against these guys and not really give them a run for their money. I couldn't handle that part of it.
"That definitely gave me a better appreciation for my future and leaving the game of golf competitively," he said. "As far as trying to make money off my buddies, I will always do that. But as far as competing at the highest of levels, yeah, I have a better appreciation for when that day comes."
Retirement can wait. Woods now is occupied only with playing again.