Tiger facing final title defense at Aussie Masters

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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - The crowd was smaller. The tournament has moved to a different golf course. The Australian Masters can no longer boast of having the No. 1 player in the world.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed this year are Tiger Woods‘ intentions.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good chance of winning the event if I play the way I know I can play,” Woods said.

These days, that’s a big if.

Woods is one week away from going winless for a calendar year for the first time in his career. The best he can say is that he is coming off consecutive top 10s, although that’s a little misleading. While he tied for sixth in the HSBC Champions, he was 12 shots out of the lead. And technically, he finished fourth at a charity skins game in Thailand, where there were only four players.

Indeed, progress takes on a new meaning these days.

A year ago, Woods capped off another stellar season when he won the Australian Masters at Kingston Heath for his seventh victory of the year and the 82nd worldwide of his career. Then came a swift and spectacular downfall, starting with a middle-of-the-night car accident outside his home after Thanksgiving that set off revelations of extramarital affairs.

Woods, who spent nearly five months away from golf, has not won a tournament since last year in Melbourne.

“I think we know how good a player he is, and when he’s on, he’s just spectacular,” Sergio Garcia said. “He’s had his problems, too, like we all know. He’s trying to get everything back to where it was before, to get on his comfort level, I guess.”

The Australian Masters gets under way Thursday at Victoria Golf Club, a clever golf course that starts with a 257-yard hole surrounded by daunting bunkers that will remain a par 3 for the tournament. It ends with consecutive par 5s.

Along with Woods, playing in Melbourne for the second straight year after an 11-year absence, the field features Robert Allenby, Stuart Appleby, Michael Sim, Camilo Villegas and Geoff Ogilvy, who grew up at Victoria and knows this course better than any in the world.

Woods had never seen it until his pro-am Wednesday, sending Steve Williams on a scouting report Tuesday as Woods took a break from playing in Shanghai last week and the skins game in Thailand on Monday.

“These greens have a lot of movement to them, so you have to hit the ball on the fairway to hit good irons shots into the proper spots and have good putts at it,” Woods said. “These greens, if you miss them on the wrong spot, you’re not making par. You have to put the ball in the correct spot, and that starts with your placement on the tee and what angle you want to have. It’s just fun to play.”

Not much about this year has been fun, including a trophy case that is collecting dust.

Off the course hasn’t been much better. Woods spent his summer trying to figure out a swing while working out details on a divorce settlement. His divorce became official Aug. 23.

The Australians last saw him as the No. 1 player _ that ranking belongs to Lee Westwood now _ whose game and image was impeccable. Some see this year’s event as Woods coming full circle, for it was in Melbourne when he last looked like the Tiger Woods the public was used to seeing.

And it was in Melbourne when the National Enquirer first linked him to a New York nightclub hostess.

For Woods, it’s just another tournament.

“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.”

Unless he wins this week, it will be the first time in his pro career that Woods is not the defending champion somewhere in the world.

“Hopefully, that doesn’t happen,” Woods said. “I’m going to go out there and give it my best, and I’ll try and make sure I give myself every opportunity to win this event. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That doesn’t change my commitment to getting better and working on my game.”

That commitment began in August. Three tournaments into his return to golf in April, Woods parted ways with swing coach Hank Haney and tried to figure it out himself. The results were even worse, and it didn’t help that his time was divided between golf and working out his divorce.

Woods eventually wound up with Sean Foley, intrigued by his ideas through two other Foley pupils, Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan. But even after they met up at the PGA Championship, Woods said he wasn’t sure he was prepared for another swing change.

He revamped his swing twice under Butch Harmon, then again under Haney. He knew how long it could take, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to go in that direction. It was only after the PGA Championship, where Woods tied for 28th, that he decided to take on the task.

“I was definitely waffling,” he said. “At the PGA, every night I was trying to figure out, ‘Should I actually do this or not?’ Because I know the undertaking it is. I know how much effort it takes, how many swings you have to make in the mirror, how many things you have to think about, the adjustments that it takes. Do I really want to do that again?”

The question now is how long it takes him to look like he once did on the golf course.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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