Woods all the rage in Melbourne

The 2010 JB Were Masters provides the focus for not only Australian golf this week but for Australian sport and even Australian society, the arrival of Tiger Woods ensuring the event receives coverage rivalled only by that he generated here twelve months ago.

If we needed reminding of just how much publicity an appearance by Woods at an Australian golf tournament generates, that was provided by the line-up of cameras at Moorabbin Airport to see his private jet touch down on Tuesday morning.

The level of publicity might not be the same as in 2009 but to a large extent that is to be expected given that last year he was here in Australia for the first time in 12 years. Even allowing for that, the tournament is the talk of Melbourne and provided Tiger plays his part on the golf course, it will be all week.

Twelve months on from the visit to Melbourne that set in motion the near collapse of an empire, Woods is back and slowly but surely rebuilding his game and his reputation as he looks to defend the title he won by two shots over Greg Chalmers last year.

If there was ever a yardstick or litmus test to provide how far he has come or alternatively how far he has slipped in those twelve months it is this week on a Melbourne sand-belt golf course considered amongst the best in Australian golf.

The Victoria Golf Club was not designed by Alister Mackenzie but he had a great influence in what it is today by producing a bunkering plan for the initial layout designed by William Meader and Oscar Damman. Over the past 14 years or so the golf course has undergone remodelling and restoration work by local architect Mike Clayton much of it in an endeavour to restore the course and the bunkering to its original look and feel.

The golf course has played host to numerous professional events but in 2002 the course suffered at the hands of tournament officials keen to see the relatively short layout protected by lightning greens. They pushed it to the edge and beyond. Something had to break and it did. The opening round of the Australian Open that year was cancelled after several greens became unplayable in the breezy conditions that prevailed that day.

The reputation of the fine layout was unfairly tarnished that year and this week provides the opportunity to remind the Australian golfing pubic that this is truly one of its better layouts.

The Australian Masters was played for 30 years at the nearby Huntingdale Golf Club before the event was moved to Kingston Heath last year. The tournament needed a boost and the move to the fabulous Kingston Heath certainly achieved that initial goal but the involvement of Tiger Woods took the tournament to the level it enjoyed in the eighties and nineties when dominated by Greg Norman.

Given the cloud Woods was under early in 2010 he was unable to make a decision regarding his return to defend until late in May. By then the tournament organisers IMG had taken out the insurance policy of having Sergio Garcia and Camilo Villegas as their drawcards in the event of Woods being unable to defend his two shot victory over Greg Chalmers.

Woods is here however and the tournament and Australian golf are better for it.

Woods is not at his best although many would say that Woods at 75% is a lot better than most of this field at their very best. Woods played the golf course today for the first time and as is often the case in those circumstances experimented. In practice rounds on a new golf course it is often the case of a golfer finding out where not to go as much as where to go and he hit driver on 6 or 7 holes.

"I hit driver as many times as I possibly could today to just try and get a feel for it," said Woods after his round. "Stevie (caddie Steve Williams) was saying last night that there were probably only two or three driver holes out there." Woods might be a little less adventurous tomorrow.

Woods is concerned about his consistency at present.

"I get in streaks on the golf course. I can go five or six holes where I don't miss a shot then I play a couple of straggly holes and then I get on a roll again. It is building however. At least I am now able to get into those streaks and it is starting to happen more and more often."

"Man I would love to win here," he said when asked that very question. "As I have said before I have always loved coming down here and always loved playing the sandbelt events. The courses are so much fun to play and the only time you play something like this is on a links course in Scotland or Ireland - or in parts of England."

"You do not need 240 yards on every par three for it to be challenging or difficult. These are some of the greatest par threes I have ever played. Whether it be Huntingdale or Royal Melbourne or here these are just phenomenal par threes and not overly long."

Woods is joined in the field by three other golfers from the world top fifty namely Robert Allenby, Camilo Villegas and Geoff Ogilvy. Allenby represents Wood's greatest danger. At number 21 he is Australia's leading world ranked player and although he has not won this year he is our most prolific winner of domestic events in recent years. He has played well in recent weeks including when 5th at the PGA Tour event in Malaysia after a final round of 64. I like his chances of beating the favourite.

Ogilvy played much of his junior and amateur golf at this golf course but has not played a tournament for nearly six weeks and has had an indifferent year. He began to play well again before his 13th place finish at the Tour Championship but that was his last event. Local knowledge counts for little at this level but he is a class player at best and if he can find some of that form he is some sort of chance.

Villegas has slipped from the lofty heights he enjoyed in world golf eighteen months ago but with an 8th place at the PGA Championship and a 9th place finish at the Tour Championship then they are performances good enough to be considered against this field.

Sergio Garcia started 2010 in 12th position in the world ranking but has slipped to 70th telling the story of a player lacking form and confidence. It has been a few weeks since he last played at the Andalucia Masters in Spain. He finished 10th there, suggesting that maybe there is some hope but he is a long way below his best.

Whatever the outcome this week, the presence of Tiger Woods is sure to create a great level of interest both in Australia and elsewhere as he looks to return to his winning ways.

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