Tiger Struggles on Greens at Aussie Masters

Tiger Woods played 14 holes before finally missing a green in the opening round of the Australian Masters, which would seem like the ideal start to defending a title for the last time this year.

Trouble was, he couldn’t get a putt close to the hole, which was not the first time that happened this year.

Woods had to settle for a 2-under 69 on Thursday, leaving him four shots behind a trio of players who competed before far fewer fans and had far less trouble on the greens at Victoria Golf Club.

“That was probably the highest score I could have shot,” Woods said.

Adam Bland and Alistair Presnell, roommates on the Nationwide Tour in the United States, each had a 6-under 65 in the cool morning before the greens became crisp under a warming afternoon sun. They were joined late in the day by Daniel Gaunt, whose career took a sudden turn for the better this year, considering he was working in a golf shop this spring.

“Rock bottom,” said Gaunt, a feeling Woods knows all too well.

The Australian Masters represents the 82nd worldwide victory for Woods, and also his most recent. That was a year ago at Kingston Heath, where his return Down Under after an 11-year absence brought the kind of crowds reminiscent of a major, all of them eager to see the world’s No. 1 player.

That was 12 days before his car accident in the middle-of-the-night led to revelations of womanizing. Woods returned to defend his title as the No. 2 player in the world — he lost his top ranking to Lee Westwood two weeks ago — who is trying to retool his swing.

Typical of his year, it was the putter that held him back.

Woods hit it in all the right spots, which at Victoria means below the hole. But he rarely had enough pace on his putts, and his lone bogey came on a three-putt from 45 feet that he left about 8 feet short. On the final hole, he avoided a similar mistake by holing a 7-footer for par. It left him in a tie for 17th and with few worries.

“I could have easily been 4, 5, 6 under,” Woods said. “I don’t know what the guys are going to do this afternoon, but I’m right there.”

Presnell was on the verge of earning a PGA Tour card late this summer until his game went into a funk at the worst time, and he failed to finish among the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list.

He still knows what it’s like to compete on a big stage, though — he qualified through the Australasian Tour for a World Golf Championship at Doral, tied for sixth and made $214,300. He also got into the HSBC Champions in Shanghai last week.

“It was a massive thrill,” he said.

Imagine how it felt for Gaunt, who this spring was working in a golf store trying to pay the bills and wondering if it was time to give up on golf as a career. Then came an exemption to a Challenge Tour event in England, which he won, and he went on to earn his European Tour card for next year.

Gaunt now feels as if he belongs, whether it’s on the Challenge Tour or in a field that includes Woods, Robert Allenby, Sergio Garcia, Geoff Ogilvy and Camilo Villegas.

He already is 1 up on Woods. Gaunt qualified for the British Open last summer at Turnberry, shot 67 in the second round and made the cut on the number. Woods didn’t make it to the weekend.

“I now feel I should be there,” he said.

Gaunt used to be a member at Victoria, as was Ogilvy, although it didn’t help the former U.S. Open champ Thursday. He struggled to a 72, as did the other marquee names in the field. Garcia made double bogey on his opening hole for a 73, while Villegas shot 71. Allenby, who played with Woods, three-putted his opening two holes from inside 18 feet and had five three-putts in his round of 73.

Woods feels as though he is making progress with his revamped swing under Sean Foley, who is home in Florida. He showed more signs in the opening round, managing his way around the tight, bush-lined fairways by missing only two fairways.

One of them came with a driver on the par-5 18th hole, forcing him to chip out and eliminating a good chance at birdie. The other was with a 3-wood on the eighth hole, where he went bunker-to-bunker and made par.

Most pleasing was a driver that he hit hard and with a slight fade, the perfect shape for the par-5 17th that plays 601 yards. Woods hit a 2-iron to 30 feet for eagle, and narrowly missed the putt.

Woods otherwise hit a collection of 2- and 3-irons off the week to play short of the bunkers, and he had plenty of looks at birdie. Three times on his outward nine, he missed from inside 8 feet. He made those putts on his back nine, twice for par.

“I hit the ball well all day,” Woods said. “It was just a matter of getting committed to hit the ball a little harder on my putts. I was in all the right spots. But they’re really slow up the hill and really quick going down, and I didn’t make the adjustment.”

From there, it was off to a luncheon and clinic for sponsors, along with a practice session.

The trio of leaders were allowed to dream about the gold jacket that goes to the winner, the one Woods wore a year ago.