Woods in the mix after opening round in Australia

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Playing golf in Melbourne’s famous sandbelt region suits Tiger Woods just fine.

The Victoria course measures only 6,886 yards, making it one of the shortest Woods has played. Yet he found it challenging enough Thursday in the opening round of the Australian Masters that he had to make a 7-foot putt on the final hole for a 2-under 69. That left him four shots off the lead in the last tournament where he is the defending champion.

Woods hit driver only on the par 5s, a similar strategy to what he used last year in winning at Kingston Heath. He switched irons on the 257-yard opening hole to make sure he wound up just short of the green.

“Why can’t we build golf courses like this in America?” Woods said as he walked to the seventh tee. “This is cool. This is so cool.”

All he needs now is to putt better.

As has been the case for so much of this forgettable season, Woods simply doesn’t make as many putts as he once did. In his first competitive round at Victoria, he followed his plan to perfection by missing only two fairways and having birdie putts on all but two greens. But he took 19 putts on his outward nine and was fooled for most of the day.

“That’s probably the highest score I could have shot,” Woods said.

Adam Bland and Alistair Presnell, roommates while they traveled the Nationwide Tour in the United States this year, each had a 6-under 65, with Bland making birdie on his last four holes. They were joined atop the leaderboard by Daniel Gaunt, who was equally impressive under the warming of the afternoon sun.

A year ago, Woods opened with a 67 for a share of the lead and stayed there the rest of the week.

By now, however, comparisons with last year are pointless.

His victory in the Australian Masters a year ago was the 82nd of his career, and no one had any doubt who was No. 1. That came just 12 days before his middle-of-the-night car accident, that soon turned into a scandal over his extramarital affairs.

Woods showed only signs of recovering — except for a tie for fourth in the Masters and U.S. Open on courses where he once dominated the competition — when he and swing coach Sean Foley and began rebuilding his swing.

After his opening round Thursday morning, he headed for a lunch and clinic with sponsors. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said he was not necessarily surprised he hasn’t won this year.

“I don’t think my game was ready for that,” Woods said. “I was making too many changes, so it hasn’t been consistent enough to do it. I would have had to have putted really well for me to do it, and I haven’t holed as many this year.”

That much was true again at Victoria.

Woods spoke about the importance of keeping his tee shots in the fairway and his approach shots below the hole, and that’s what he did. But his birdie putts rarely had a chance because there was not enough pace. On his lone bogey, his 45-foot birdie putt came up 8 feet short and he three-putted. On two birdie tries inside 8 feet, the putt broke below the cup.

“I gave myself a lot of looks early. I just kept leaving them short,” Woods said. “It was just a matter of getting committed to hit the ball a little harder on my putts. I was in all the right spots. But they’re really slow up the hill and really quick going down, and I didn’t make the adjustment.”

He wasn’t alone.

Robert Allenby, who is from Melbourne and twice won the Australian Masters, played with Woods and didn’t inspire much confidence. On his opening two holes, Allenby three-putted from inside 18 feet, and he had three other three-putt bogeys for a 73.

The other top players didn’t fare much better. Camilo Villegas had a 71, while Sergio Garcia had a 73. Geoff Ogilvy, a former U.S. Open champion who grew up at Victoria, had a 72.

Even though he stuck with 2-irons off the tee, even on some holes over 440 yards long, the most pleasing shot to Woods was the drive on the 601-yard 17th, a low cut to fit the perfect shape of the fairway. From there, he hit a 2-iron to 30 feet, and while he narrowly missed the putt, it was his first birdie.

Woods added another birdie on the par-4 No. 1 with a flop shot that came off the slope to 4 feet. His final birdie came on the par-3 third with a short iron to 5 feet.

Woods left without much concern.

“I could have easily been 4, 5, 6 under,” he said. “I don’t know what the guys are going to do this afternoon, but I’m right there.”