Tiger Woods gives boost to buzz-starved Australian Open

Tiger Woods is making his first start since the Frys.com Open last month.
<b>Dean Lewins / EPA</b>

SYDNEY, Australia — Australia's domestic golf circuit never quite needed life support, but it's fair to say that it has coughed and sputtered for years. The Presidents Cup always promised to be a tonic, but from the moment in late 2010 that Fred Couples all but committed his captain's picks to join him for a pre-Royal Melbourne tune-up in Australia, the vital signs improved dramatically.

The Emirates Australian Open won a protracted battle for the coveted calendar slot before the Presidents Cup. Since then, the cards have all come up aces for the once-revered tournament. When Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer used to visit as a matter of course, Nicklaus referred to the Australian Open as the "fifth major."

But that was three decades ago. It was only when big-hitting Americans Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson committed to play the event earlier this year that the Australian Open began to stir public attention Down Under.

As the big-name Aussies committed and Golf Australia officials signed the majority of the American Presidents Cup team, interest grew further with nine of the world's top 22 players on board.

Then came the pivotal moment.

With Tiger Woods's world ranking plummeting like a wrought-iron hang glider, he announced in August he was adding the Australian to his injury-shortened 2011 schedule. The tournament's marketing puzzle was solved, and the final piece of the rebirth fell into place.

When Steve Williams rocked the world with his racial slur against Woods at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai last week, Williams's comments effectively handed the Australian Open a free ticket to global exposure and put in place the last of myriad storylines for this tournament in Australia's biggest city.

Woods hasn't played in Sydney or at the Australian Open since November 1996, when he tied for fifth at the Australian Golf Club as a 20-year-old, just six months before he took the world by storm with the first of his four Masters titles.

And Nov. 15 will mark the second anniversary of the former world No. 1's last tournament victory — also in Australia at the JBWere Masters at Melbourne's Kingston Heath. But listen to him speak and you'll hear a man convinced that his winless drought — not unlike his run of injuries — is about to end.

"I've gone through a tough period there, because I was hurt for so long," Woods said at a press conference Tuesday. "I had an Achilles injury, a knee injury and obviously I parted ways with my coach [Hank Haney] and now I'm with Sean [Foley], so a lot of different things happened in that time span.

"Trying to get the practice time, I couldn't practice, so I'm trying to make changes in my game for Sean, you need time and we haven't had time," Woods said.

Woods played just four practice holes on Tuesday, but he will play the pro-am on Wednesday to get his first full look at the Lakes Golf Club. Woods will also be joined in the field by more top-ranked Americans than have appeared in Australia since the Accenture World Match Play Championship in Melbourne in 2001.

David Toms is another U.S. Presidents Cup team member playing the Australian Open this week. While Toms, like many of his compatriots, is primarily in preparation mode for the Presidents Cup, he said he liked the look of the storied Lakes course, redesigned by Australian professional Mike Clayton four years ago to take in its original open layout and expose its sandy dunes and wasteland where possible.

Toms said on Tuesday that he and his countrymen had confidence they would adapt quickly this week and next. His teammate Dustin Johnson concurred.

"I've heard these courses are a little different to ours, but you play them pretty much the same," Johnson said. "I'm not sure about Royal Melbourne yet, but these greens roll well and the ball stops OK, so I'm looking forward to it."

Most of the eye-catching holes are on the inward nine, situated around the lake from which the course takes its name. Three back-nine par 5s — none of which run in the same direction — proved critical when Geoff Ogilvy won his first Australian Open last year.

Ogilvy tamed those three monsters, particularly the stunning 14th, which will be within reach of most of the field in two shots. But the wickedly sloping green surrounded by sand and water can wreck scorecards in a heartbeat, particularly when the pin is forward, closest to the long water carry.

Unusual for championship courses, both sides finish with par 3s, neither of which has any discernible demons apart from the need to put the ball on the same tier as the pin or risk some treacherous long putts.

The Australian Open features 11 past champions — Ogilvy, Adam Scott, Craig Parry, John Senden, Robert Allenby (2), Stephen Allan, Stuart Appleby, Aaron Baddeley (2), Greg Chalmers, Greg Norman (5) and Peter Senior — and Australia's highest-ranked player Jason Day, the world No. 7.