MELBOURNE, Australia – Tiger Woods lived up to eight months of anticipation in Australia on Thursday by running off three straight birdies late in his round of a 6-under 66 that put him atop the leaderboard in the Australian Masters.
Playing for the first time Down Under in 11 years, before an enormous gallery only seen at major championships, Woods putted for birdie on every hole until the last one. He pulled his drive into a tea tree, chopped out into the rough and took two putts from 40 feet for his lone bogey.
Among early starters, Woods was tied with James Nitties of Australia, coming off his rookie season on the PGA Tour, and Branden Grace of South Africa.
Woods missed only two fairways in a round that was relatively free of stress. He hit driver off the tee five times and except for the final hole, kept it in play and away from the trouble. Woods chose to lay back from the bunkers on several of the short par 4s at Kingston Heath, and a couple of times hit poor shots or played purposely away from the flags.
“You play for what it’s giving you,” Woods said. “I didn’t have to change my game plan on any hole.”
He made his move toward the end of the round, hitting 3-wood to the 294-yard sixth hole that held its line to the left of the bunkers and came up just short of the green, leaving an easy chip to a foot. After a poor tee shot left him a bad angle to the green on the seventh, Woods hit 8-iron over the corner of trees to 20 feet for another birdie, then hit 8-iron to 7 feet on No. 8 to set up his third straight birdie.
Far more impressive than the golf, however, was the gallery.
Traffic was backed up along Kingston Road outside the club for miles in the hour before Woods tee off.
“I know,” he said. “I was stuck in it, too.”
The tournament has been a sellout for months, and it remains peculiar to see a ticket window at an Australian golf tournament with a sign that says “Sold out.” The cap was at 100,000 tickets for the week, and while it was impossible for 25,000 fans to stay on one hole, whoever couldn’t fit in moved ahead to the next couple of holes.
That turned into a treat for the likes of Seve Benson, playing in the group ahead of Woods, feeling like a rock star himself.
“It was amazing,” Benson said after a 70. “After a couple of holes, you get used to it. But then you realize that they were not on the hole before. They had been there for awhile waiting.”
It was a little different behind Woods, as marshals allowed the gallery to stop in the middle of crossing areas so that they fans entirely circled every green on which Woods, defending champion Rod Pampling and Craig Parry were putting.
Parry holed a 50-foot putt on the fourth and shot 70, while Pampling had a 71.
Nitties was among those in the group behind Woods, and he couldn’t believe when his group was told they were behind the clock. He said tour officials were more lenient when they realized the players had to wait for fans ahead of them to clear the crossing zones before they could tee off on par 4s.
“If we hit a good drive, we could hit the people,” Nitties said. “It was difficult at times, hitting at moving targets. But I thought it would be more of a circus than it was.”
Among those in the gallery was Woods’ mother, Kultida, who usually only travels to Augusta National and Sherwood Country Club for her son’s tournament in December.
Woods, coming off a tie for sixth in Shanghai last week, had few complaints about his round. He twice missed birdie putts inside 8 feet, and spent a large part of his round lag putting.
“My iron game certainly wasn’t sharp,” he said. “I didn’t take on some of the pins. And others were just bad shots.”
Cameron Percy and Doug Holloway were at 67, while Greg Chalmers was in the group at 68.
Geoff Ogilvy, the only other player besides Woods in the top 50 at Kingston Heath, took double bogey on his final hole for a 72.