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Tiger Woods faces tricky test at the Heath

JBWere Masters

MELBOURNE, Australia – The sun-baked fans let out a cheer Wednesday when Tiger Woods pulled his driver from the bag, a rarity at the Australian Masters on the shortest golf course he has played all year.

That doesn’t mean Kingston Heath, a par 72 at a mere 7,059 yards, will be his easiest test.

Woods played the entire course for the first time in the pro-am before another massive crowd, picking his spots around the sandbelt course that is framed beautifully by bunkers and native brush.

“He’s going to have to show some of his best stuff playing around a course like this,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “He’s going to have to play smart, play imaginative golf and stuff. That’s what he has really been good at the last few years, especially shaping his ball around and playing proper golf … old-style golf. I think it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The Australian Masters has been sold out for months, not long after it was announced that Woods was receiving a $3 million appearance fee for his first individual tournament Down Under since the Australian Masters at nearby Huntingdale in 1997.

That was two months before Woods, who was 21, captured his first major by winning the Masters by 12 strokes.

He now has 14 major championships and victories in 12 countries – but not yet in Australia. Even so, the bookies have installed him as the heavy favorite at Kingston Heath.

The JBWere Masters gets under way Thursday, with Woods playing alongside defending champion Rod Pampling and Craig Parry, who won the last time Woods competed in this part of the world. That was the New Zealand Open in 2002.

“A good omen for me,” Parry said.

Woods is coming off a tie for sixth last week in Shanghai at the HSBC Champions, where he started two shots out of the lead and in the final group only to falter with a 72 to finish five behind Phil Mickelson.

His only other experience in Melbourne was at Huntingdale in 1997 and Royal Melbourne in 1998 for the Presidents Cup.

“Some local knowledge helps around here,” Adam Scott said. “But if anyone can figure it out, Tiger Woods obviously can. He’s the best player in the world and he’s playing well. There’s no question he’s the man to beat this week.”

Woods didn’t even try to reach the 294-yard sixth, one of the signature holes at Kingston Heath. Instead, he hit a stinger 3-wood and tried to run the ball into the front bunker, missing his target and winding up in the gallery just left of the green.

Why not the driver?

Woods laughed, noting it would be impossible to keep a ball on the greens, which are expected to get even firmer under sunny conditions with temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

“I’d wind up in the bushes,” he said.

In the 18 tournaments Woods has played this year, only two of the par-72 courses were under 7,200 yards – the Buick Open at Warwick Hills (7,127 yards), which he won by three shots; and the HSBC Champions last week at Sheshan International (7,143 yards), where he tied for sixth.

Bay Hill was 7,162 yards as a par 70, and Woods rallied to win that from five shots behind in the final round.

“You don’t need a golf course that is 7,500 yards for it to be hard,” Woods said. “You can build it just like this, and have it nice and tricky. It’s just a treat to play.”

Woods has played somewhere outside the United States every year since he turned pro in 1996, and only three years he has he failed to win around the globe. This is final tournament overseas this year, with his last competition coming at his Chevron World Challenge in California the first week in December.

His presence at Kingston Heath has dwarfed the rest of the field, which counts only Woods and Ogilvy from the top 50 in the world ranking. It also features Michael Sim, who crushed his competition on the Nationwide Tour this year.

“He is clearly the favorite going into almost any tournament he plays,” Ogilvy said. “But the clear favorite doesn’t always win. Sometimes the local guys that added emotional, home-tournament drive to win it. So he’s up against it this week to win. But he is definitely, clearly the favorite.”

Ogilvy’s pace has slowed dramatically from his victories in January (Hawaii) and February (Accenture Match Play in Arizona), while Scott has endured the toughest year of his career. Scott is coming off a tie for third at the Singapore Open last week, moving him up to No. 62 in the world. He started the season at No. 17.

Australia had five players in the top 50 at the end of last year. Now it is down to two – Ogilvy and Robert Allenby.

“If it happens four or five years in a row, then we panic,” Ogilvy said. “But I think we’re going to be all right.”