Woods begins quietly as Bland, Presnell lead in Melbourne

Melbourne: Champion Tiger Woods made a quiet start to the defence of his Australian Masters title with a two-under par 69 at the Victoria Golf Club on Thursday.

The world number two was four shots behind early clubhouse leaders Australian duo Alistair Presnell and Adam Bland, who shot six-under 65s in near perfect conditions early in the first round.

Presnell mixed five birdies, an eagle and bogey six on his final hole, while Bland strung together five birdies in his final six holes to snatch a share of the early lead.

Woods won the gold jacket by two shots last year at nearby Kingston Heath before his life imploded when stories broke about his personal life quickly developed into a storm which wrecked his marriage, tarnished his clean-cut image and caused him to take a break from golf.

The 14-times major winner has not won since that victory.

Unlike last year, when `Tiger-mania` swept the city, the galleries stood only three deep at the 10th tee while there were large gaps along the fairway when he begun his defence shortly before 7.30 a.m. (2030 GMT) in overcast conditions.

Woods, who received polite but muffled applause when he was introduced along with playing partners Robert Allenby and Brett Rumford, belted his first drive directly down the middle of the par-four, 372-metre 10th but was only able to make par.

He dropped a shot on the par-four 12th before four successive pars was ended by his first birdie of the day on the par-five, 550-metre 17th after he had reached the green in two shots.

Woods, who lost his top ranking to Briton Lee Westwood earlier this month after more than five years as world number one, picked up two further birdies after the turn but rued several missed putts that just slid by the cup.

Play was temporarily halted at 11.00 a.m. as the crowd and players observed Remembrance Day, with a solo trumpeter playing "The Last Post" to commemorate the end of World War One.

Spain`s Sergio Garcia and Colombia`s Camilo Villegas were scheduled to begin their first round later.

Bureau Report

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