MELBOURNE, Australia (AP)—Tiger Woods lived up to eight months of anticipationin Australia on Thursday by running off three straight birdies late in his roundof 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 enormousgallery only seen at major championships, Woods putted for birdie on every holeuntil the last one. He pulled his drive into a tea tree, chopped out into therough and took two putts from 40 feet for his lone bogey.
Among early starters, Woods was tied with James Nitties of Australia, comingoff 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 ofstress. He hit driver off the tee five times and except for the final hole, keptit in play and away from the trouble. Woods chose to lay back from the bunkerson several of the short par 4s at Kingston Heath, and a couple of times hit poorshots or played purposely away from the flags.
“You play for what it’s giving you,” Woods said. “I didn’t have to changemy game plan on any hole.”
He made his move toward the end of the round, hitting 3-wood to the 294-yardsixth hole that held its line to the left of the bunkers and came up just shortof the green, leaving an easy chip to a foot. After a poor tee shot left him abad angle to the green on the seventh, Woods hit 8-iron over the corner of treesto 20 feet for another birdie, then hit 8-iron to 7 feet on No. 8 to set up histhird 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 thehour 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 seea ticket window at an Australian golf tournament with a sign that says “Soldout.” The cap was at 100,000 tickets for the week, and while it was impossiblefor 25,000 fans to stay on one hole, whoever couldn’t fit in moved ahead to thenext couple of holes.
That turned into a treat for the likes of Seve Benson , playing in the groupahead of Woods, feeling like a rock star himself.
“It was amazing,” Benson said after a 70. “After a couple of holes, youget used to it. But then you realize that they were not on the hole before. Theyhad been there for awhile waiting.”
It was a little different behind Woods, as marshals allowed the gallery tostop in the middle of crossing areas so that they fans entirely circled everygreen on which Woods, defending champion Rod Pampling and Craig Parry wereputting.
Parry holed a 50-foot putt on the fourth and shot 70, while Pampling had a71.
Nitties was among those in the group behind Woods, and he couldn’t believewhen his group was told they were behind the clock. He said tour officials weremore lenient when they realized the players had to wait for fans ahead of themto 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 wasdifficult at times, hitting at moving targets. But I thought it would be more ofa circus than it was.”
Among those in the gallery was Woods’ mother, Kultida, who usually onlytravels to Augusta National and Sherwood Country Club for her son’s tournamentin December.
Woods, coming off a tie for sixth in Shanghai last week, had few complaintsabout his round. He twice missed birdie putts inside 8 feet, and spent a largepart of his round lag putting.
“My iron game certainly wasn’t sharp,” he said. “I didn’t take on some ofthe pins. And others were just bad shots.”
Cameron Percy and Doug Holloway were at 67, while Greg Chalmers was in thegroup at 68.
Geoff Ogilvy , the only other player besides Woods in the top 50 at KingstonHeath, took double bogey on his final hole for a 72.