Tour and News

Y.E. Yang talks about his new-found celebrity, his father and his heroics at Hazeltine

Photo: Scott A. Miller/US PRESSWIRE

Y.E. Yang not only beat Tiger Woods at Hazeltine, but he also became the first Asian-born player to win a major.

They say you never hear the bullet that kills you. Tiger Woods didn't. When he had the lead after 54 holes at a major, Woods was 14 for 14, the closest thing in sports to a sure thing. Then at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., Y.E. Yang did what Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Bob May, Rocco Mediate, Phil Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Vijay Singh couldn't — wrestle a major title from Woods on Sunday afternoon.

How did an unheralded 37-year-old Korean who barely touched a club until he had finished high school pull off one of golf's greatest upsets? With gutsy shotmaking, clutch putting, and the will to ignore the 300-pound elephant in the red shirt. Says Yang through his interpreter and agent Ryan Park: "I just forgot that I was dealing with Tiger altogether."

You had been playing well heading into the PGA, with a couple of top-10s in the two weeks before. Did you sense that you were ready to win a major?
No, I didn't do anything different before the PGA. Try to finish top 10 — that's my biggest expectation. Finishing top 10 in a major for me would be a great feat in itself. I've played 50 or 60 tournaments in the U.S. and I've only made the top 10 five times, including my two wins. Not until I made the chip for eagle on 14 [on Sunday] did I just vaguely think, I might have a chance.

In retrospect, which was your most important shot of the day?
Definitely the second shot [from 206 yards] at the 18th. My caddie A.J. [Montecinos] and I agreed on the club, and I'd been practicing with my 3-iron rescue club for quite some time. It was a confident swing, and a great result. [Yang hit it to 12 feet.]

Were you aware of Tiger's 14 of 14 record when he had the lead after 54 holes at a major?
Of course I was. Reporters kept reminding me of it.

Your caddie said that you're the mentally toughest player he's ever seen. Where does that toughness come from?
I don't think it's toughness, but a will to block out everything peripheral and just concentrate on my strategy. Thus I become oblivious to any and all pressure, or at least I try to.

Did you employ any special techniques to help offset Tiger's aura?
I just forgot that I was dealing with Tiger altogether, probably until the 18th green, when I acknowledged that Tiger could make a miraculous comeback. I just played my game.

At points during the back nine, and especially on the 15th green, it looked like Tiger was deliberately crowding you. Was he trying to intimidate you?
Maybe, maybe not. I think it would be a better question to ask him rather than me. I really didn't think much about it.

You said that great names play with Tiger and 'their competitive juices flow and they go head-to-head with him and try to win.' Why is that the wrong approach?
I can't say that is a wrong approach, but through experience, I understand that aggressiveness can go a long way, but too much pressure and added expectations can become negative variables. I think sometimes players add unnecessary pressure upon themselves.

You've also said you're a believer in luck. What percentage of winning a major is luck, and do you believe that you can create your own luck?
I can't quantify it, but it must have something to do with good results, right? To put it in a different way, a lot of things were going my way on that particular day. I doubt Tiger would have such a bad day again any time in the near future.

He certainly didn't at the Presidents Cup, where he went 5-0 and beat you 6 and 5 in singles. What was your reaction when you heard you'd be facing off with Woods again?
I was a little bit surprised, since the strategy we had set up at our team meeting was a little different. I thought Ryo [Ishikawa] might be paired with him since he was playing well and due to all the media attention.

What did you and Tiger say to each other on the first tee?
Just the normal pleasantries.

Has he congratulated you in person on your PGA victory?
Not yet.

In your singles match, did you sense that Tiger was exacting some payback?
You'll have to ask him that, though I doubt he will answer. But I guess it was a little sweeter for him, and a bit disappointing for me.

When you watch Tiger dominate like that, do you wonder how you beat him at Hazeltine?
Oh, of course. I think I really was lucky as well as playing well. You don't get to see that version of Tiger that much. It's usually the Presidents Cup Tiger who you see on Tour.

As a young man, you were an aspiring bodybuilder. What about weightlifting appealed to you?
I just started going to the gym, and then I got addicted — I was trying to get that six pack and stuff.

Were you ever as 'cut' as, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Hell no. Arnold was beautiful. I was just getting some definition when injury struck.

What happened?
Tore my knee, had to quit. [During a stint with a Korean construction company, Yang fell down a flight of stairs and ripped his ACL.]

You didn't start playing golf until you were 19. Why?
I didn't know about golf back then [laughs]. Once I found out about golf I wanted to learn more about it. Before 19 I probably touched a few golf balls but that's about it. I didn't know what a golf club would look like and how the game was played.

Once you had a club in your hand, did you take to the game immediately?
I think it was about the third day of hitting balls that I started to get a real feel for it. It wasn't until one of my seniors showed me a teaching pro ID and told me that it was a license to teach and that I could make a living teaching golf at our driving range. From then onwards, I saw that I could make a living out of playing golf and that's when I started to really become serious about the game.

Your father didn't believe that golf was a good career path. Was it difficult to disobey his wishes?
I disregarded my father's wishes because my father didn't look at golf as a means to earn a living. He saw golf, especially in Korea, as a pastime for the privileged for going out and having fun. He saw no economic value in it. On the other hand, I learned there was a lot of value in learning and teaching golf. So even though my father didn't think much of golf, I stuck with it.

Did you see golf as your destiny back then?
I was almost 20 years old and I wasn't going to school anymore. You have to do something, right? Since I had started golf I thought I might as well try to succeed at it. Even though my father disagreed, I would have done it over and over again. I just thought that it was my path. I wouldn't use a grandiose word like "destiny." I do think I am quite stubborn and strong headed and no matter what my father said I would have done it.

After your first year as a pro, you improved steadily, culminating with the 2006 HSBC Championship where you also beat Tiger down the stretch. Then, in 2007, you struggled mightily. What went wrong?
Until then, the competition was relatively on par with my abilities. Once I headed out to U.S. and tried to play the European Tour as well, that's when things got tough for me. The competition was stiffer and the players were of a higher level. All the traveling back and forth to the U.S. and Europe, new golf courses, new customs, new food, and then on top of everything else a lot of people were expecting more from me in 2007. I put a lot of pressure on myself as well and that ultimately was my downfall. To give you a sense of my schedule that year, I believe that I flew around the world six times.

When you won the Honda classic in March — your first PGA Tour win — you talked about how relieved you were. How much of a turning point was that week?
There was a lot of pressure on me. I consider myself part of Le Coq Sportif and TaylorMade. I am an employee of those two companies. My sponsors have invested a lot in money me in the hope that I'd do well and win a tournament, and it's just a bad feeling when you finish a tournament and you don't win or finish in the top 10. Once I won on Tour, it was a relief that I fulfilled my duty to the companies that had shown a lot faith in me. With the win, I also received a two-year exemption on the Tour so it gave me a lot more comfort and allowed me to pursue my training goals.

After the Honda, you said that you had a 'bigger goal out there.' Was that a major title?
I really didn't think much of winning a major — it was out of my pay grade at the time. I did think that with the two-year exemption I would compete for one or two more titles on Tour. The comfort and reassurance that I didn't need to go to Q School for the next two years was probably the best feeling. But when I thought about bigger goals, I thought about PGA Tour wins, not majors.

When did you bring your wife and three sons to the States?
Before I first qualified for the Tour [in 2007]. In the end, I got my Tour card by two strokes. Even though I did gain my card, there were only a limited number of tournaments I could participate in, and if I didn't win or didn't make enough money to extend the membership then I'd have to do it all over again and there was no guarantee that I would once again pass Q School. That meant I would have to leave my family in the U.S. while I went around to the European Tour and to Asia and Korea to earn money. I took a gamble when I brought my family here, and it was nerve-wracking every tournament when I didn't make the cut.

How much additional pressure do you feel to represent Korea now that you're a major winner?
Not a whole lot, since I am not the only one representing Korea. You have K.J. Choi, who was the trailblazer, myself, then you have Charlie Wi and Kevin Na. Danny Lee and Anthony Kim are also considered Korean by Koreans. If I did feel pressure, then I wouldn't be doing this interview right now. I'd be out practicing.

Are the Koreans on tour tight?
Of course. It's a little fraternity. K.J. congratulated me over the phone right after the press conference at the PGA, and he lives about five minutes from me in Dallas.

After the PGA, you threw out the first pitch at a Texas Rangers game. Was it a strike?
No, high and inside.

You also met with President George W. Bush. Did you talk baseball with him?
No, it was a short conversation. We just talked about living in Dallas and being neighbors.

Heady stuff. How has your life changed most since winning your first major?
I get a lot more interview requests — probably a hundred since the PGA. I get a lot of autograph requests as well. Plus, a lot of people used to mistake me for K.J. and Charlie. Now those people are accurate about 95 percent of the time.

Getting to know Yang
Age: 37
Height/weight: 5-9, 195 lbs.
Birth name: Yang Yong-eun
Birthplace: Jeju-do, South Korea
Residence: Southlake, Texas
Family: Wife (Young Ju Park) and three sons (ages 4, 9, 10)
Turned pro: 1996
Career victories: PGA Tour (2—2009 Honda Classic and PGA Championship); European Tour (2); Japan Golf Tour (5); Asian Tour (2)
World Ranking: 31
2009 earnings: $3,489,516

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