- 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.

The field at Victoria features fewer players in the top 50 than any other tournament Woods has played all year, which doesn’t make it any easier. It includes Robert Allenby, Stuart Appleby, Camilo Villegas, Sergio Garcia and Geoff Ogilvy, who grew up at Victoria and knows this course better than any in the world.

“I don’t think you can be missing in any part of your game,” Ogilvy said. “You can probably not be at your best in every aspect, but you have to do everything pretty well to do well around here, which is why I think it’s a really good test.”

Woods wasn’t particularly sharp Wednesday, missing several tee shots to the left. He was hitting driver more than he will when the tournament gets under way Thursday, and while he thrilled the gallery with a 20-foot eagle putt on his final hole, they didn’t see the tee shot that landed in a bush. Woods had a spectator toss it back toward the fairway.

It’s that kind of golf that produced only three top 10s this year, including a tie for sixth last week in the HSBC Champions, where he finished 12 shots out of the lead.

“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,” Woods said. “If it happens, it happens. It if doesn’t, it doesn’t. That doesn’t change my commitment to getting better.”

That commitment revved up again in August.

Three tournaments into his return, 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 a divorce settlement.

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

“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?”

He saw enough positive signs at Whistling Straits that he got together with Foley during the week between the PGA Championship and the start of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Walking off the course Wednesday, Woods had a text from Foley, who was giving him a list of swing keys to remember.

“When that laundry list becomes short and he says, ‘Go play well tomorrow,’ then it will be a little bit better,” Woods said.

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