Melbourne :World number two Tiger Woods rued costly putting lapses as he opened his Australian Masters title defence with a two-under 69 at Melbourne's Victoria Golf Club on Thursday.
Defending champion Woods, who is chasing his first tournament victory of the year, struggled with his putting in benign conditions and was four shots off the first round lead.
A trio of Australians, Adam Bland, Alistair Presnell and Daniel Gaunt, led after the opening 18 holes on six-under 65.
The 14-time major winner carded three birdies and a bogey, but missed several birdie putts which could have pushed him closer to the leaders.
"I really played well, I hit a lot of good shots and gave myself a bunch of looks early for birdie and every putt was left a little bit shy," Woods said.
"Coming in, I tried to hit the putts a little harder but kept leaving them short.
"It could have easily been four, five, six under par today but I'm right there, I'm only four back as of now."
Starting his round off the 10th tee, he bogeyed the 12th hole and narrowly failed with a couple of birdie putts before he just missed an 30-foot downhill eagle putt at the 17th and made birdie.
He played a gem of a 90-foot pitch over the bunker at the first hole and sank a seven-footer for his second birdie then claimed another shot at the fourth with an uphill putt.
He only missed two fairways in calm morning conditions and said it was his best opening round since returning to golf in April.
"I've certainly not hit the ball like this in a first round. I hit it pretty good in China last week but not like this today," he said.
"If I just could have holed a few more putts, it could been a really good round."
Woods, 34, is returning to Melbourne where he last won before a spectacular fall from grace in the wake of a sex scandal that engulfed his personal and professional life.
Apart from the breakup of his marriage, the upheaval also cost Woods his world number one ranking -- which went to Englishman Lee Westwood last week -- after a 281-week run at the top.
Woods fared better than the other tournament drawcards.
Leading Australians Robert Allenby (73) and Geoff Ogilvy (72) were over par in the morning, while Colombia's Camilo Villegas shot a par-71 and Spain's Sergio Garcia stumbled to a two-over 73.
There was a distinct absence of the hysteria which greeted Woods's appearance at nearby Kingston Heath for last year's tournament, with an official crowd of 13,582, well down on the 20,000-plus fans that clamoured to see him when he won by two strokes.
Organisers have downplayed the decline in ticket sales for this year's event saying the novelty value since Woods's first visit to Australia in 11 years has worn off.
While he acknowledged the atmosphere was not as electric as last year's Masters, Woods, who is being paid a reported three million dollar (three million US) appearance fee, said he appreciated the crowd's support.
"Seven o'clock is a little early for most people," he said.
"They certainly came out on the back nine and it was a great atmosphere to play in front of.
"People have been just fantastic each and every trip, but especially this week."