Major Breakthrough

At the PGA Championship, South Korea's Y. E. Yang stunned the golf world by overtaking sports' greatest front-runner to become the first Asian male to win a Grand Slam event
August 23, 2009

There was no wayto prepare for the scene that played out on Sunday evening on the final greenof the 91st PGA Championship. Tiger Woods was going through the motions oflining up a par putt that meant ... absolutely nothing. On the edge of thegreen, 37-year-old Y.E. Yang of South Korea was jubilantly pumping his fists,having just stolen a tournament that had been all but conceded to Woods twodays earlier. The fans around the green at Hazeltine National Golf Club, inChaska, Minn., were muted, sensing that to cheer for Yang would furtherdiminish Woods, who had lost not only a tournament but also his aura ofindomitability. The game's most ruthless closer was now on the business end ofthe biggest golf upset since a 20-year-old former caddie named Francis Oiumetbeat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the 1913 U.S. Open.

For all of hisaccomplishments it was Woods's 14-for-14 record at closing out 54-hole leads inthe majors that most contributed to his reputation for invincibility. That hasbeen shattered now, not only because Tiger lost but also because of who beathim—a happy-go-lucky player who didn't take up the game until age 19 and nowbecomes the first Asian male to win a major. Then there was the stunning waythat Woods submitted to defeat. The game's most imaginative shotmaker couldnever hit it close when it really mattered; the greatest clutch putter inhistory needed 33 putts, repeatedly blowing opportunities to put away, and thencatch, Yang. Woods has always had a metaphysical mastery of the moment, anunparalleled ability to summon the right shot at the right time, but this timeit was Yang who produced the decisive magic.

Having missed outon a record-tying fifth PGA Championship victory and 15th major title, Tigercould do little more than blame his putter and offer some hollow philosophicalwords. "It was just a bad day at the wrong time, and that's the way itgoes," he said.

Yang's victorycompletes one of golf's most unlikely journeys. He grew up working on hisfamily's vegetable and rice farm on the island of Jeju. In his teens Yang wasan aspiring bodybuilder whose grandest dream was to someday own his own gym. Aknee injury at 18 ended his heavy-duty weightlifting, and he found his way to alocal driving range, where he giddily whacked balls into a net with a baseballgrip. Self-taught with instructional videos, Yang was breaking par within threeyears but his development was slowed when he served almost two years ofcompulsory military service. (The country-club softies who have made a habit oflying down for Woods have collectively done little farming and spent even lesstime guarding naval installations.) By 1997 Yang had earned a place on thesmall-potatoes Korean PGA tour, and over the years he steadily moved up to theAsian and then Japanese tours. Heading to Hazeltine he had nine worldwide winsacross four tours, including the PGA Tour's Honda Classic in March. Still,there was nothing to hint at the breakthrough that was to come at the PGA.

During the firstround Tiger hit 12 fairways and 15 greens in regulation while firing a flawless67 that gave him the outright lead. Yang was six back after a scrappy 73. OnFriday a big prairie wind blew across Hazeltine, and of the top 15 playersheading into the round Woods was the only one to break par, with a two-under 70that stretched his lead to four strokes. Little noticed was Yang's remarkableturnabout during the second round. After bogeying four of his first five holes,he roared back with an eagle and four birdies for a 70 that left him tied forninth, six strokes back.

Saturday broughtideal scoring conditions but instead of trying to blow open the tournament,Woods played prevent defense, aiming at the middle of most greens and followingwith delicate lag putts. "I felt that with my lead, I erred on the side ofcaution most of the time," he said of a ho-hum 71 that featured two birdiesagainst one bogey. His lead was cut to two, though, thanks to the go-for-brokeplay of Yang, who continued to attack Hazeltine en route to the low round ofthe day, a 67. Asked about sharing a leader board with Woods, PadraigHarrington and Ernie Els, Yang said graciously, "It's a privilege to belisted on top with those names, great names and great players that I admire andrespect."

But Els andHarrington and so many others carry the scar tissue from assorted Tigermaulings. Yang actually came in undefeated in showdowns with Woods, havingtangled with him only once before with a tournament on the line: in Shanghai,when he trumped Tiger by two strokes to win the 2006 HSBC Champions, one ofAsia's biggest events. Still, when Yang found out on Saturday night that hewould be paired with Woods for the final round, "My heart nearly explodedfrom being so nervous," he said, and no wonder: In Woods's 14 majorchampionship victories his Sunday scoring average was almost four strokes lowerthan his playing partner's.

Yang admitted to arestless night, but he felt at peace by the time he got to the 1st tee onSunday. His humility might have been his greatest asset. "I think thatgreat names, when they tee off with Tiger, their competitive juices flow outand they go head-to-head and try to win," Yang said on Sunday night. "Idon't consider myself as a great golfer so my goal today was just to shoot evenpar."

But Yang servednotice that he had come to play by knocking down the flagstick on the 3rd holefor a key birdie. When Woods three-putted number 4, he dropped into a tie withYang. Twice Tiger retook the lead only to give it back with bogeys. Meanwhile,Yang had made eight straight pars when he stepped to the tee of the 314-yard,par-4 14th. He immediately reached for his driver.

Two months agoYang, his wife, Young Ju Park, and their three sons moved to Dallas. Beforethat they lived in Palm Springs, Calif., "and there was a casino there hewould go to all the time to play blackjack," says Yang's former caddieJason Hamilton. "He would often go home with a couple of thousand dollarsin his pocket. The guy is a gambler at heart."

Yang ripped adrive just short of the 14th green and then played a delicate pitch-and-runthat clanged off the flagstick and disappeared for a stunning eagle, leading toa lusty fist pump that Yang called "my best Tiger imitation." Now astroke back, Woods looked increasingly tight and unsure, repeatedly throwinggrass in the air and rehearsing his swing. Yang, meanwhile, never stoppedsmiling, playing with the carefree alacrity of a man who knew history awaitedhim.

Still a strokeahead at 18, he smashed a drive down the left side, leaving 210 yards to a pintucked in the back left corner. Even on the most important shot of his lifeYang's tempo was as languid as always, and with a 21-degree hybrid he carved amajestic draw that settled eight feet from the hole. It was a strike of suchpurity and importance it immediately earned a place in the pantheon of thegame's greatest 72nd hole shots, alongside Tommy Armour's three-iron at the1927 U.S. Open, the one-iron Ben Hogan hit at the '50 U.S. Open, Jack Fleck'sseven-iron in the U.S. Open in '55, Jerry Pate's five-iron to take the '76 U.S.Open, Sandy Lyle's seven-iron at the '88 Masters, Corey Pavin's four-wood atthe '95 U.S. Open and Shaun Micheel's seven-iron at the 2003 PGA. Woodscouldn't summon a similar execution, yanking his approach left of the green,and Yang put an emphatic end to a remarkable round by pouring in his putt for a70 and an eight-under total of 280.

Woods was classyin defeat, saying Yang "played beautifully." At the end of his pressconference Woods met his waiting family in the parking lot. Like any dad who'shad a rough day at the office, he needed a hug from his little girl, so hescooped up two-year-old Sam and they plopped down together in the driver's seatof a courtesy car, an embrace that lasted at least 20 seconds. After a coupleof minutes of talking and giggling, Sam was gently placed in a car seat andTiger changed out of his spikes while sitting in the driver's seat. Turns outhe puts his sneakers on one foot at a time, just like the rest of us.

In the clubhouse,Yang had been ushered into a private ceremony with Hazeltine members andvarious tournament dignitaries. Yang is not the champion this crowd had beenlooking forward to greeting, but the polite applause grew louder as heacknowledged the clapping with four long, courtly bows. After lustily downing aflute of champagne alongside his teary-eyed wife, Yang addressed his audience.Tapping his heart, the new champ said, "This has been the best day of mylife."

And, undoubtedly,one of the worst of Tiger's.

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What will Yang's win mean for golf and the Olympics? Our experts and Ty Votawof the PGA Tour debate at GOLF.com/confidential

The game's most imaginative shotmaker could never hitit close when it really mattered.

PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICHYIN AND YANG After keeping his emotions in check on Sunday, the winner exulted over his clinching putt while a dejected Woods played the unaccustomed role of runner-up. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERBUNKER MENTALITY Tiger played it safe over the weekend and failed to win his fifth Wanamaker Trophy, which Yang seized with his more daring approach. PHOTOFRED VUICH[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)