- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - A news helicopter showed up over Victoria Golf Club early Wednesday morning, about the time Tiger Woods set foot on the course for the first time on the eve of his title defense in the Australian Masters.

The chopper left a short time later and never returned.

There was not much buzz _ in the sky or on the ground _ compared with his appearance a year ago at Kingston Heath, when some 7,000 fans complained that helicopter rotors kept them from hearing the sound of Woods‘ iron shots.

The crowd was not even half that size for his pro-am round Wednesday, a reflection of Woods being a regular in these parts. It’s his second straight year Down Under after an 11-year absence, and he’ll likely be back next year for at least the Presidents Cup.

Some look at this Australian Masters as Woods coming full circle.

It was in Melbourne a year ago that the National Enquirer first linked him to a New York nightclub hostess. And it was here that he last looked like a daunting figure in golf. He won for the 82nd time in his career. He was No. 1 in the world by miles.

Woods doesn’t see it that way.

“I think I’m just here to defend the title,” he said. “I’m here to play a great golf course and play against a great field. And that’s how I’m looking at it.”

Does he at least return with mixed emotions?

Woods shook his head.

“I wanted to come back,” he said. “I love it down here. I always have.”

He returns with his game in such bad shape that he faces the prospect of going an entire year without winning for the first time in his professional career. His impeccable image is not much better, shredded by revelations of infidelity that led to his divorce.

Woods at least can roll with the punches. At a gala dinner Tuesday night at the Crown Casino, he was on stage with Shane Warne, legendary in Australian cricket as a leg spinner and for his many dalliances.

“I think we’ve got a little bit in common,” Warne said with a smile, pausing for effect. “I love golf, too.”

Woods broke into a smile and the audience roared with laughter. Such a self-deprecating moment is another step for Woods as he tries to move forward, and he hopes his game is not far behind.

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