Woods creating a scence Down Under

MELBOURNE, Australia – Thousands of fans created a steady stream of traffic Wednesday across the 10th fairway at Kingston Heath, then turned and moved en masse up the left side of the 481-yard hole.

They were not going to the green. They were headed for the exit.

Tiger Woods had just finished his pro-am round at the Australian Masters. And that’s who they came to see.

Before sunrise, some two hours before he teed off in the first round, a line of people stretched out the gates and some 150 yards down Kingston Road. Next to the ticket window was a sign unfamiliar in these parts: “Sold Out.”

As much golf as he has played around the world, even Woods has been surprised by his reception during his first trip Down Under in 11 years. It has included a $600-a-plate dinner at the Crown Casino on Tuesday night, a meeting the next night with cricket star Michael Clarke and thousands of fans at every turn.

Does anyone realize Rod Pampling is the defending champion?

“My mom and dad do,” he said. “My brothers don’t.”

Geoff Ogilvy, who grew up in Melbourne, is the only other player among the top 50 in the world at Kingston Heath. He is a former U.S. Open champion with three World Golf Championship titles, second only to Woods. Yet even if he were to win this week, the trophy might as well say, “Best Supporting Actor.”

And that’s OK with Ogilvy and the rest of the Australians.

“It’s exciting that golf is on the front page of the newspaper again,” Ogilvy said. “The fact that Tiger is here, I’m just happy that Australians and Melbourne people get to see him play. We get spoiled. In the U.S., we get to see him play quite regularly. He gets paid a lot of money to play, but he gets offered that money anywhere in the world, and he has chosen to come here.”

The hope is that Woods, who received a $3 million appearance fee – will help boost interest in a tour that has dwindled over the last decade with a drop in sponsorship support, despite Melbourne’s reputation as having more championship courses than any city in the world.

The PGA Tour had 24 players from Australia with full-exempt status this year; no other country outside the United States had seven. It adds another next year with Michael Sim, who won a record $644,142 on the Nationwide Tour this year. Sim also is playing the JBWere Masters.

“This is just great golf down here,” Woods said.

Whether he plays some of it himself will be determined Thursday, when Woods tees off with Pampling and Craig Parry, who won the last time Woods competed in this part of the world – the New Zealand Open in 2002.

“A good omen for me,” Parry said.

Woods finishes his two-week trip overseas with a family affair as his mother is making a rare appearance at a golf tournament, along with some of Woods’ closest friends. Dating to 1996 when he turned pro, Woods has gone only three years when he failed to win at least one tournament overseas.

He tied for sixth last week in Shanghai, where he started Sunday two shots behind Phil Mickelson and in the final group, only to struggle to break 40 on the front nine and finish five shots back of his top rival.

Woods played his only full round Wednesday in the pro-am, picking his spots around the shortest course he will play all year. Kingston Heath is a mere 7,059 yards and plays to a par 72, yet it is not a course that can be overpowered.

Woods realized that on one of the signature holes, the 294-yard sixth. He hit a stinger with his 3-wood, wistful when it turned to the left toward the gallery instead of going into the front bunker, which was his intention.

Why not drive the green? Woods laughed.

“I’d wind up in the bushes,” he said.

In the 18 tournaments Woods has played this year, only two of the par-72 courses were under 7,200 yards – the Buick Open at Warwick Hills (7,127 yards), which he won by three shots; and the HSBC Champions last week at Sheshan International (7,143 yards), where he tied for sixth.

Bay Hill was 7,162 yards as a par 70, and Woods rallied to win that from five shots behind in the final round.

“Some local knowledge helps around here,” Adam Scott said. “But if anyone can figure it out, Tiger Woods obviously can. He’s the best player in the world and he’s playing well. There’s no question he’s the man to beat this week.”

He is the betting favorite at Kingston Heath, not unlike most tournaments he plays. And while the course requires more thinking than bashing the ball, Woods showed he is capable by winning majors at Royal Liverpool by hitting only one driver during the week, and at Southern Hills, where he managed to navigate its bending, tree-lined fairways.

“He’s going to have to show some of his best stuff playing around a course like this,” Ogilvy said. “He’s going to have to play smart, play imaginative golf and stuff. That’s what he has really been good at the last few years, especially shaping his ball around and playing proper golf ... old-style golf. I think it’s going to be fun to watch.”

There won’t be a shortage of people watching.

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