CHASKA, MINN. When Rich Beem won the PGA Championship in 2002 at Hazeltine, he offered hope to every struggling assistant club pro who made more money hustling members than teaching hackers.
When Y.E. Yang won the PGA Championship in 2009 at Hazeltine on Sunday, he offered hope to the rest of the golf world. To every frustrated athlete who ever picked up a 7-iron as a last resort. To every Asian-born golfer who dreamed of winning a major tournament. To every tour pro who figured Tiger Woods wouldn’t blow a lead on a major Sunday until he started using his putter as a cane. To every fan who craved a delicious twist of fate.
We love making predictions about sports; Yang, the 37-year-old who started playing at 19, reminded us Sunday that the improbable does happen, that a farmer’s son from Korea can stare down the greatest golfer in history; that a guy you had never heard of on Saturday morning can give you chills on Sunday afternoon.
Yang’s victory — he beat Woods by five strokes Sunday to win the tournament by three — should sell more buckets of balls than the invention of the titanium driver. A self-described “aspiring bodybuilder,” Yang said a knee injury and a friend’s recommendation led him to a 60-yard driving range in Korea. He grabbed a club with his baseball grip, slapped a few balls into the nets, and, he said Sunday night, “it just felt fun.”
He didn’t break par until he turned 22. He decided he wanted to work at a driving range, giving lessons. Then he discovered tournament golf.
He held off Woods three years ago to win the HSBC Champions tourney in China. This year, he earned his first PGA Tour victory in March at the Honda Classic. “I told people then, that once they got to know him, they would love him,” said Yang’s caddie, A.J. Montecinos. “He’s got heart, and he showed it today.”
Yang, ranked 110th in the world, bogeyed four of the first five holes on Friday morning to reach 5 over par, putting himself at risk of missing the cut. He played like a champ from there, even after realizing Saturday night that he’d be paired with Woods in front of Hazeltine’s immense galleries.
Yang kept waking up and then watching himself on the Golf Channel, but when he reached the first tee Sunday, he felt calmer. “It’s not like you’re in an octagon where you’re fighting against Tiger and he’s going to bite you or swing at you with his 9-iron,” Yang said. “So the worst he can do — or the worst that I could do — was just lose to Tiger and probably go a few ranks down the final scoreboard.
“I usually go for broke. The odds are against me. Nobody’s going to be really disappointed that I lose.”
Maybe that’s the key to facing Woods: low expectations. The players who have fared best on Sundays of a major in Woods’ pairing — like Bob May and Rocco Mediate, grinders who forced him to a playoff — figured they had nothing to lose. “I really had nothing much at stake,” Yang said. “And that’s how I played it.”
Then the guy with the Rocky story line paraphrased one of Rocky’s famous lines: “As far as the question concerning the rematch — never again,” Yang said. “I would like to stay as the guy who won over Tiger at the PGA Championship, and that’s about it. No re-dos.”