Tiger licks his wounds as rivals sense end of an aura

Woods defends his ability to continue reign as sport adjusts to shock USPGA loss

From the Irish bookie who paid out £1.25m on the "certain" winner at the halfway point, to the Minneapolis reverend who actually asked his congregation to pray for the leader's impending victims, the feeling of disbelief only intensified yesterday. The aura of the game's greatest front-runner was under scrutiny.

Some whispered it had been shattered, some declared it had merely been battered; some whispered he would never be the same again, some declared he would be better. And YE Yang, the history-making Korean who dared to overhaul Mr Uncatchable, simply smiled and said: "I still think Tiger Woods great." No doubt he is, YE, but thanks to you, the question will now rage: "Exactly how great?"

Inevitably, they will queue up to defend Woods and downplay the significance of this, the first time in 15 majors when he failed to win when leading going into the final round. Padraig Harrington, for one, does believe Woods' USPGA collapse, when he led by four after Friday and lost by three on Sunday, will be significant. Yet not as the critics may think.

"All this will do is make Tiger even more determined," said the Irishman whose own Wanamaker Trophy defence ended so calamitously with a quintuple bogey eight on Sunday. "His pride has been hurt, but he will reflect on the fact that next year the majors will be played on courses such as Pebble Beach and St Andrews where he has enjoyed success in the past, and he will come out licking his lips.

"And don't forget he has only been back six months after complex knee surgery – and he's won five titles so far this season. So I wouldn't be knocking him too much for not winning a major in 2009. Plenty of us haven't and will be disappointed, including me. I'll be one of those hoping to have something to say about Tiger winning a few more next year. But I honestly believe that stopping him is going to be harder than ever."

It is true that if one stumble and trip does not constitute the end for a brilliant pacesetter, then one blank major year also does not constitute the end of a march towards history. In fact, Woods remains in line to overtake Jack Nicklaus record major haul of 18; the manner which he is tracking the Golden Bear is quite eerie. In the 13th season of his professional career, Nicklaus failed to bag any of the majors for a fourth time. This was also Woods' 13th season and he, too, was recording his fourth zip. At this stage, Nicklaus had 12 majors, Woods, of course has two more.

Yet, Woods was keen to draw another parallel with Nicklaus, who famously ended up with more runner-up placings in majors then victories. It used to be all or nothing for Woods, but now these little somethings are racking up. In his first eight years as a pro Woods won eight majors and finished second just once. In the last five years, Woods has won six majors and finished second five times.

"That's certainly one of the reasons why I changed my game with Hank [Haney, his coach]," said Woods. "My career has certainly been much more consistent over the last five years. I've finished higher in majors if I haven't won and that's the only way you're going to win majors over the long haul... Nobody in the history of the game has done better than Jack – and he finished second 19 times. I'm very proud of the changes I've made to get to this point."

That did not sound like a desperate man ready to sack his coach. Yet the rumours of Haney's imminent dismissal continue to circulate and will no doubt increase in the next six months before the majors resume. As it is, Woods was quite happy tee-to-green on Sunday – in truth, he was outplayed by playing partner Yang in every facet – and placed all the blame on his, admittedly, dreadful putting. No doubt, he will already be in Florida bleeding all over the practice green and when he returns for the end-of-season dollar fests it will be the dead-eyed Tiger of old. Yet it will never be the complete Tiger of old. After Hazeltine it can't be.

No longer will his rivals look at him at the top of a major leaderboard on Sunday morning and sigh to themselves, "It's over". There is a precedent now – for their hope and for Tiger's insecurity. Prime-time golf just got that little bit more interesting. Wham, bam, thank-you Yang.

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