SYDNEY — The buzz around The Lakes was almost tangible.
Tiger Woods stood on the first tee having been almost universally praised as being back after storming to the Australian Open lead, and surely these next 36 holes were just a re-coronation march.
But a hard bounce on the first hole sent his ball scurrying through the green, from where he could manage no better than bogey.
Barely an eyelid was batted.
The dose was repeated on the second hole. Eyebrows began to rise.
By the time he missed a short par putt on the third and tumbled from the lead, you could almost sense a question mark hanging back over his head. At least, that was the consensus in the massive galleries following Woods.
He eventually signed for a three-over 75 — a score Woods wistfully dismissed as "never exciting" — as he tumbled from atop the leaderboard to a tie for eighth, six shots behind leader John Senden.
Woods hit terrible pull hook tee shots off the second and 11th tees, both of which resulted in bogeys. He blocked a drive 25 yards to the right on the short par-4 13th, but Woods justified that by saying the green was between a driver and a 3-wood, and to play a "soft, cut, slicing driver" was "a hard shot for me to hit."
It almost sounded like he was trying to convince himself rather than simply explaining it away to curious reporters. The past three times Woods has had at least a share of the lead, the next round has been over par.
Here's what he had to say about his score, which included 34 putts — 11 more than Senden.
"It's frustrating, because I didn't think the greens were going to be that firm," he said. "Instinctively, when they were, I played [for] more break on the putts, and I missed every single putt on the high side on the front. So I make an adjustment going on to the back nine and play slightly lower lines, and consequently I missed every single putt on the low side."
He certainly played a lot of great long shots again, which is a vast improvement on the battles he's had since his new swing came to tournament courses.
"I didn't feel any different," Woods said. "I was just out there plotting my way along. I hit the ball well enough to shoot a good score."
During his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday, Woods said that the way for him to be the world's best again was to turn "bad" rounds into 69s or 70s, rather than letting them blow up as he did on Saturday.
"The round should have been an easy 71, no problem," he said.
"If I take care of the par fives and play the easy holes well and make a couple of putts, it's a one- or two-under-par round, and it doesn't seem that bad."
But, in golf, the proof is always on the scorecard. Until those "ifs" become birdies, the jury remains out.
The Australian Open, instead, now likely rests in the hands of three Aussies who ply their trade on the PGA Tour. Senden fired 12 shots better than Tiger Saturday and surged from six behind him to six in front.
The 40-year-old Senden, who says he is rarely recognized away from the course, is one shot clear of world No. 7 Jason Day.
Day, who turned 24 on Saturday, fired his second consecutive 68 to stand at 11 under, one shot ahead of the ageless Greg Chalmers, who won this event in 1998.
But Day won't have the same anonymity as his fellow Queenslander Senden. The Masters and U.S. Open runner-up, playing his first elite event in Australia as a professional, already has enormous crowd support and will carry great expectations into the final round.
The Aussies' heroics overshadowed another poor day for the American Presidents Cup players.
Bubba Watson battled his putter en route to a 72 to match Woods at six under, while David Toms had an unusually erratic 70 to sit at one under. That's the same total as Bill Haas, who hasn't come to terms with The Lakes' grainy greens.
Dustin Johnson had a day to forget, despite playing alongside Senden, matching Woods's 75 to slip to even par.