No one was more shocked than Tiger Woods when the virtually unknown Y.E. Yang convincingly won the 2009 PGA Championship.
Yang delivered the final knock-out punch with a daring birdie on the final 475-yard 18th hole. After finding the left rough off the tee, Yang hoisted a 3-hybrid over an intervening tree to within 8 feet of the pin. He then went on to sink the putt for birdie eventually winning by three after trailing by two at the start of the round—in all a five shot swing.
This all while Tiger did his best imitation of Mohamed Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” as the South Korean delivered blow after blow. For those that are too young to remember or have forgotten the details, Mohamed Ali used the rope-a-dope strategy against the more powerful George Foreman in the now infamous Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
In the long-anticipated fight, Ali hung on the ropes in a protected stance allowing Foreman to pummel him like a punching bag. Of course the genius of Ali’s approach was that the unwitting Foreman thought he was winning the fight. But then suddenly, at just the right moment, Ali sprung to life eventually defeating his arm-weary opponent.
As it turned out Yang was no Foreman and Woods was no Ali—not by a long shot. When the final bell rang Tiger was looking up from the canvas unable to continue—scoring a technical knock-out for Yang.
The punisher had been punished. The intimidator had been intimated. Woods had never been bloodied like this before by another opponent.
After the tournament was over a reporter, carefully choosing his words, made the statement that Tiger had never been in this position before and went on to ask him, how it felt. Woods deflected the question, answering in a somewhat defensive tone, that indeed he had been in that position many times before.
Tiger was of course referring to the fact that in the past he had he had been in exactly the same position before, being one shot down with one hole to go. However, that is not what the reporter meant by his question. What he was really asking was how Woods felt after being so soundly defeated.
At the start of the final round Wood’s fans were confident that at the end of the tournament he would be one step closer to Nicklaus’ record for major championship victories. The expectation was that Yang, like other opponents before him, would become unglued in the final round by all that is Tiger. But Yang came out of his corner strong birding two of the first three holes. And when Woods went on to make bogey at the par-3 fourth his two-shot lead had evaporated.
Of course it is reasonable to assume that Tiger’s focus may have been more on Harrington than Yang but if that was the case it was a serious mistake. Harrington eventually proved to be nothing more than a distraction after making a quadruple on the par-3 eighth effectively shooting himself out of the tournament.
Maybe Woods, like the rest of the world, underestimated Yang’s talent and perseverance. Tiger commented after the round that Yang had always been a good ball-striker but it was the flat-stick that kept him from winning more.
Perhaps what Tiger failed to take into account is that when you hit it close to the pin you don’t have to make every putt.
Then there was Yang, who played the final round without any expectations, considering himself a 70-1 shot to win the tournament. But he never let up, not once; challenging the par 5’s and firing at every pin.
And unlike other final round opponents it seemed that Yang was unfazed by Wood’s aura of invincibility proving that his mental game was as strong as or stronger than Woods—at least for the final day of the championship.
It is hard to remember when Tiger last lost a tournament that was in his grasp but in fact it was the 1996 Quad Cities Classic. The 20-year-old Tiger Woods, who had lead after three rounds, was poised to win his first professional event. He was paired in the final round with journeyman Ed Fiori.
In front of a hometown crowd, the Woods had a rough start. making a quadruple bogey at the fourth and later four-putting the seventh. Fiori went on to win the tournament shooting 67 while Tiger finished a disappointing fifth.
But this was the PGA Championship, thirteen years and countless victories later. In the post round interview Tiger told reporters that his putter was to blame for failing him down the stretch.
Others might disagree with this explanation believing that it is an oversimplification of the facts.
After two rounds this was clearly Tiger’s tournament to win but somehow he let it slip from his grasp. Why?
One answer might be that his conservative third-round play carried over to the final round. As he said later his strategy was to “dump” the ball on the green, putt out and move on to the next hole as he fashioned a 1-under par 71.
It was during this round that Tiger had a chance to put distance between him and the field but instead he dropped his gloves expecting his fellow-competitors to wilt in his afterglow.
Tiger carried this same conservative strategy forward from the third to the fourth round. Why else would he hit a three-iron off the 431-yard second hole leaving him more than180 yards to the green—just so that he could hit an 8-iron?
That worked at Firestone’s 16th during the World Golf Championship but this was No. 2 at Hazeltine a full week later. The magic was gone.
Later in the round Tiger did have a chance to swing the momentum in his direction. On the par-3 13th Yang hit into the bunker while Tiger found the green. Yang blasted out and made a crucial putt to save par while Woods two-putted. If Tiger made his and Yang missed, maybe the outcome wold have been different. Maybe.
And then there was the par-4 14th, where Yang chipped in for eagle besting Tiger’s birdie after they had both drove the green. While this wasn’t a knock-out punch it was a solid uppercut to the body. You could tell by Tiger's body language as the chip went in that he was clearly rocked by the South Korean.
At this point, if it were indeed a boxing match, the referee would have held Tiger’s gloves, looked him squarely in the eyes, and assessed his ability to continue.
At the 16th, Yang kept the pressure on, firing at the pin preciously perched on the right side of the green just a few feet from the water. The ball finished on the fringe, dangerous perched at the top of the downslope, just a few feet from the hole. Yang later admitted that he had hit the ball a little farther right than he had intended but even so, under the circumstances it was a brilliant shot.
Tiger, after finding the fairway off the tee, left his ball well away from the pin settling for a yet another two-putt.
As it turned out, Yang narrowly missed making his birdie putt which would have extend his lead to two shots with only two holes to go.
Tiger had one more chance at the 17th. After flying over the green with a 7-iron he played a difficult downhill pitch out of the thick green-side rough. His ball finished well short of the pin and Tiger was faced with a slippery downhill putt for par. Meanwhile, Yang after hitting the front part of the green had come up considerably short on his first putt.
The spotlight was now on Tiger. This was the type of putt that he had made again and again through his career—seemingly by willing the ball into the hole. Not this time. He and Yang walked off the green with bogey 4s on their card. The rest is history.
There is no question that Yang deserved to win the championship—he is a great ball-striker and he played valiantly.
Will this breakout victory be the beginning of something big for Y.E. Yang or will his name just become the answer to another trivia question—an asterisk along the way as Tiger marches onward toward golfing immortality? That is a question only he can answer.
And for Tiger, there is no question that he will surpass Nicklaus’ record for winning major championships—you can take that to the bank. But golf fans around the world will remember that this was Tiger’s tournament to win. He could have been the one standing in the middle of the ring with his hand thrust high in victory—not Yang.
Tiger must live with the full knowledge that in this instance, perhaps for the first time, he managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This time he was not only beaten by his opponent but he beat himself. Tiger will learn from this experience and not make this mistake again.But this one will hurt for a very long time.