THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - 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.

So, does 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.

Woods spoke for about 30 minutes yesterday at Sherwood Country Club. Six months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair a ruptured ligament - his third surgery in 6 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 next month, 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."

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.

In the few shots he has taken over the past few weeks, the leg has felt better than ever.

Even so, he remains cautious about the knee ligament regaining full strength. That's what makes the timing of his return uncertain. *