LA JOLLA, Calif. - Let's be honest: If it were anyone other than Tiger Woods attempting to add another major to his historic bio this week, in his first competitive golf since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee almost 2 months ago, how seriously would we be taking him?

But since it is the most accomplished athlete in the universe, he remains, well, the bloke wearing the target.

In the land of $4.50 gas, on majestic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean (which you can even see when the fog decides to lift), Tiger is going after his third U.S. Open title, but first since 2002. On a course, Torrey Pines, where he has won six Buick Invitationals, including the last four. So who cares if he's not at full strength, or has yet to walk a full 18 holes?

Of the last seven majors, he has won three and finished second in three more. He has had two runner-ups in the last three Opens. What more do you really need to compute?

"I always like playing here," he said yesterday. "I played in the Junior World from 15 to 17. Even though the golf course was renovated and changed, I still like the sightlines. Don't have a problem reading the greens. For some reason I felt very comfortable."

Evidently.

Obviously, it won't be the same layout they faced in January. And it might not be the same Tiger.

Nonetheless . . .

"I feel very good about my preparation," he insisted. "Just really looking forward to getting out there [again]. It's just a matter of playing, getting into the flow of the round and rhythm and the competitive atmosphere."

Two years ago, Tiger also didn't play between the Masters and the second major of the season. But that was emotional. He was dealing with the death of his father, who was just about everything in his life. He returned by missing the cut at Winged Foot, the only time that has happened to him in a major as a professional.

This is mostly physical. And that summer, by the way, he did go on to win the British Open and PGA.

"When my dad passed, coming back and playing was a lot more difficult than I thought," said Woods, who grew up 90 minutes north of here. "If I take time off and come back, I always work on my fundamentals. Well, who taught me my fundamentals? It was dad. What I had to go through and my preparation for tournaments, my dad taught me all those things. Overcoming and getting out and practicing, I didn't want to do that because I'd always think about him. That was my hardest thing.

"Usually people go to work to get away from that. But to me it brought out more feelings when I came to work . . . I've had a procedure done. And now [I'm] here. You can't compare the two. They're two totally different places."

He is working out, as he always does. Only now he puts ice on the knee afterward. He admits he is not fully recovered. He wishes he could have played in a tournament before this, but didn't feel he was ready. He wasn't sure he would be fit enough to tee it up until 2 weeks ago. He still is a little sore, but added it's nothing he hasn't dealt with before.

"I'm good to go," he pronounced, finally, after being asked the same question about five ways.

The best part about being sidelined for a while was getting more time at home with his young daughter, who turns 1 in a week.

"There's no way I could have gotten through this without Sam being there," he gushed. "Spending that much time off and away from training to get better, she was absolutely incredible. And I had so much fun doing that. It took my mind away from the fact that I had surgery done. And just watching her grow, walking, running now. That's been the greatest thing in the world."

And Sunday is Father's Day, Tiger's first since he became one.

Sunday is also the day that many hope the golfing gods finally allow Tiger and Phil Mickelson, a San Diego native, to play together in the final group of a major. In prime time on the opposite coast, no less. But just in case, the USGA has paired them (along with Adam Scott, your third-ranked player) in the first two rounds. Which also doesn't happen very often. Yet even if Tiger were playing with the last two qualifiers in the field, the whole world would be watching his every move. That's why ESPN is shelling out all that cash.

"I like the way they did it," Woods said. "I think it's exciting for the fans, exciting for the players. We all are looking forward to it. I haven't heard one negative thing about it yet. You don't get pairings like that until maybe [the weekend]."

NBC should only live so good.

"Once you tee off, you're in your own little world," he went on. "You don't really care about what anyone else is doing. You have enough issues going on, trying to play a major championship venue. It might influence you more in a regular event. But there's so many different things going on in a major, all the distractions and golf-course setup. You're so focused on what you have to do. I don't think the pairing has a lot to do with it."

Nothing personal, just business. As usual? Maybe not even he knows for sure. It doesn't get any more serious. *