Tiger’s aura strong, at least outside the ropes

Tiger Woods walks past a packed gallery during his first practice round for the Australian Masters – his first tournament in Australia for 11 years.

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Tiger Woods made news simply by walking off his private jet.

A large photo of Woods, dressed in black shorts and a red Stanford cap, was splashed across the front of The Melbourne Age on Tuesday morning. Imagine what it was like when he actually put a golf club in his hand. Even Woods was alarmed to see an estimated 7,000 fans covering every inch of space available at Kingston Heath to see his first appearance Down Under in 11 years.

Not long after he played nine holes with Craig Parry, the course was virtually empty.

“Nothing more to see for the day,” one fan said as he headed for the exit.

Combine that with a week in camera-happy China, where caddie Steve Williams set the golf bag down to use the restroom, and it was surrounded within seconds by some 50 fans. Just more evidence that Woods’ aura is larger than ever.

At least outside the ropes.

His mystique on the golf course has been a different story over the last three months.

It’s always best to look at the big picture with Woods, and that continues to illustrate his dominance in the game. Eight months after reconstructive knee surgery, unsure how his left leg would respond to practice and play, Woods won six times on the PGA Tour and finished out of the top 10 only three times in 18 tournaments. Even without winning a major, he considers 2009 a success.

The latest snapshot, however, is worthy of attention.

Woods, the best closer in golf, had gone five years without losing a PGA Tour event when he was atop the leaderboard through 36 holes. He has lost his last two tournaments from that spot, both times watching Phil Mickelson pose with the trophy.

The last four times Woods has played in the final group, he has won only one time – the BMW Championship outside Chicago, where he went into the final round with a seven-shot lead.

The latest mishap was the HSBC Champions, and while it’s no shame to spot Mickelson a two-shot lead and fail to win, it was the manner in which Woods so quickly became an also-ran.

With a chance to cut the lead to one shot on the second hole, he missed a 4-foot birdie. With Mickelson safely on the green about 18 feet from the cup on the par-3 fourth, Woods pulled his tee shot into the water and made double bogey. Two holes later, Woods was just about 30 feet from the flag and just inside Nick Watney, giving him a good read on the putt. Instead, he ran it 10 feet by the hole and three-putted for bogey.

If not for a 10-foot birdie on the ninth, he would have gone out in 40. Such a score is not unusual with Woods in the final group. It’s just that it usually belongs to another player.

“Just one of those days,” Woods said.

They happen to everyone. They used to happen less frequently to him.

Woods was in the final group of the Tour Championship, two shots behind Kenny Perry, but didn’t have a one-putt birdie until the 16th hole, and by then it effectively was too late to catch up to Mickelson.

It dates to the final round of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where Woods built a four-shot lead going into the weekend, still had a two-shot lead against unheralded Y.E. Yang, and lost for the first time in a major when leading going into the final round.

Woods has won four of the last 12 majors – that’s more than any of his peers have won in their careers. He also has finished runner-up in four of the last 12 majors, this after finishing second only twice in the previous 40 majors.

“You’re not going to win them all,” Woods said Tuesday, noting that Jack Nicklaus was runner-up a record 19 times. “The whole idea is to give yourself a chance in each and every one. I did that three of the four – I gave myself a chance. And unfortunately, just didn’t get it done. You learn from it.”

Even so, his missed chances in regular tournaments – The Barclays, Tour Championship, HSBC Champions – raises the question of whether Yang’s victory at Hazeltine chipped away at Woods’ mystique.

Remember, Woods had lost only one tournament in his career when leading by more than one shot going into the final round, and that was nine years ago in Germany against Lee Westwood. It had never happened in a major, the tournaments that mean the most to Woods.

“He’s normal. He was always going to do that,” Geoff Ogilvy said earlier this year. “I don’t think everybody is going to stand on the tee and say, ‘He’s going to give me a chance.’ ”

Ogilvy, however, said something could be taken away from Yang’s victory.

“The best thing about it is that the media will stop giving Tiger the tournament after 36 holes,” he said.

Maybe not. But the show still starts with Woods, whose appearance in Melbourne has made his $3 million appearance fee – half of that paid by the government – a non-issue among the Australian media.

The tournament has been a sellout for months, with tickets capped at 100,000 for the week. John Brumby, the Victoria premier, sat with Woods in a press conference Tuesday and said more than 35 percent of the tickets were sold to people either out of state or overseas. He said the economic return would be at least $19 million.

That part of Woods’ appeal hasn’t changed.

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