Melbourne :Tiger Woods will be searching for his first tournament success of the year when he returns to Melbourne to defend his title at Thursday's Australian Masters.
The 14-time major winner has endured a spectacular fall from grace since confessing late last year to committing adultery in a sex scandal that engulfed his personal and professional life.
Once seemingly unchallengeable, Woods lost his world number one ranking to Englishman Lee Westwood last week after a 281-week tenure at the top and is struggling to recapture past glories on the golf course.
Woods finished in lacklustre joint sixth place behind Italian Francesco Molinari at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai at the weekend and now has only the Australian Masters and next month's Chevron World Challenge in California to break his 2010 tournament drought.
In recent months he has employed the services of golfing instructor Sean Foley to overhaul his swing after splitting with his longtime coach Hank Haney in the wake of the sex scandals.
Woods has blamed his struggles on the ongoing adjustment to changes in his swing wrought by Foley.
"That's part of the building process. I can hit shots in a row, but I haven't strung it together for all 18 holes and I haven't done it for all 72. So just need to be patient and keep working on it," he said.
In a far cry to the hype that accompanied his visit last year when crowds at Kingston Heath were capped at 25,000 a day, tickets are still available for this week's Masters at the Victoria sandbelt course.
Fans have been told that if they heckle Woods over his off-course infidelities they will be ejected from the course.
Woods is being paid a reported three million dollar (three million US) appearance fee covered by the tournament owners and promoters IMG, and Victoria state's taxpayers through the Victorian Major Events Company.
Although Woods is the bookmakers' favourite to win on Sunday, this year's Masters has assembled a strong field headed by Australia's top-ranked professional Robert Allenby, Colombia's Camilo Villegas (ranked 30), Australia's former US Open winner Geoff Ogilvy (38) and Spain's Sergio Garcia (70).
Garcia, whose ranking has crashed to 70 from a career-high world No. 2 in March 2009 and is without a tournament win since 2008, said Woods was no longer feared by his rivals.
"I think you can never count out a guy like Tiger, one of the greatest players we've ever had in the game and definitely a man to beat and watch," Garcia told reporters.
"He's maybe not as fearsome (as 12 months ago), I think that obviously he's gone through his fair share of problems too, he's trying to get back into it too."
Allenby will play alongside Woods in the opening rounds of the Australian Masters along with Europe-based Australian pro Brett Rumford.
Woods, who won last year's Australian Masters by two shots, will be challenged by the par-71 6,297-metre Victoria Golf Club, rated one of the toughest of Melbourne's famed sandbelt courses.
The opening round of the 2002 Australian Open was cancelled when attempts to quicken the Victoria course's greens backfired and they became unplayable in a major embarrassment for Australian golf.
"We've had some good weather and the rough's come up a bit," local professional Matt Griffin said.
"With some warm weather the greens will firm up and with some wind it could play really tough. If it's benign, around 14 or 15 under would probably win."
Weather forecasters are tipping heavy rain and storms on Saturday or Sunday.