CHASKA, Minn. And so ends the Year of the Buzzkill.
Korea's Y.E. Yang made sure the major championship season concluded just as it began in disbelief and discombobulation. On Sunday, Yang did what had never been done, what we weren't entirely sure was possible, when he came from behind to snatch the 91st PGA Championship from the heretofore invincible Tiger Woods in a tense, thrilling finish at Hazeltine National.
It was a jaw-dropping finale thanks to Yang's scintillating hybrid shot to 10 feet on the 72nd green for the clinching birdie to a jaw-dropping year. Nothing happened the way it was supposed to in the 2009 majors, or so it seemed. The winners weren't necessarily the people's choices or the biggest names, and the stories weren't the stories that most of the writers were hoping to write.
Think back. Nice guy Kenny Perry becomes the oldest Masters champion at 48? Oops! Say hello to Angel Cabrera. Phil Mickelson finally gets his U.S. Open, after so many near misses, as his wife is fighting breast cancer? Oops! Say hello to humble nice guy Lucas Glover. Tom Watson goes three up on Father Time to become the golfing miracle of the ages by winning the British Open at 59? Oops! He badly misses his last par putt and suffers through a deflating playoff to Stewart Cink, the champion golfer (and golfing Twitterer) of the year.
Woods continues to rewrite the history books in the year's last major? Oops! Say hello to Yang, a late-blooming 37-year-old who once guarded a naval port during a mandatory tour of duty in the South Korean military and who was first noticed in America when he won this year's Honda Classic.
Yang's beating Tiger ranks with the greatest upsets in golfing history Francis Ouimet over Harry Vardon, Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan and Brian Barnes over Jack Nicklaus (twice in one day during the Ryder Cup).
"This might be my last win as a golfer," said Yang, who won over interviewers with his enthusiasm and humor, which was apparent even through an interpreter, "but it sure is a great day. It means the world right now."
At Hazeltine, we were expecting to see history. This was going to be Tiger's 15th major, which would've made it mathematically possible for him to pass Jack Nicklaus's 18 by the end of next year. (Now Jack is safe until 2011.) Few saw this one coming. Not when Tiger had already won four PGA Championships and was poised to land career victory No. 71 to move within two of Nicklaus in that category. Instead, we saw history of a different sort.
Tiger had never lost a major after starting the final round with the lead. Oddly enough, Woods had been criticized by some during his comeback from knee surgery for his ballstriking and swing, but on Sunday it was his putter that let him down. Woods, who had 33 putts, made only one of any significance, a clutch birdie at the 14th hole after Yang chipped in for a stunning eagle to take the lead.
"I played well enough to win the championship," Woods said. "I did not putt well enough to win the championship today. I didn't get it done on the greens, and consequently, I didn't win the tournament."
Did Yang, No. 110 in the world rankings, win this PGA Championship? Or did Tiger, No. 1, lose it?
Yes and yes. Yang shot two-under 34 on the final nine to close the deal. He earned it. But Woods also let it slip. He looked so sharp in the opening rounds, when he posted 67 (tied for low score of the week) and 70, that it was difficult to believe he would be capable of shooting over par on the weekend. This week never looked like anything but wire-to-wire Tiger.
Don't be misled by his final 75. It should have been better. He bogeyed the 17th on Sunday when he hit a superb iron shot too long; it went right over the flag but airmailed the green. At 18, he missed the green left after Yang stuck that gutsy, memorable hybrid shot close. Woods made a bad chip and missed an irrelevant par putt. It was a decidedly un-Tiger-like finish. Yang, meanwhile, did what Tiger usually does finish strong.
"It was a terrible day on the greens at the wrong time," Woods said. "I've been putting pretty good the last three days, the last three weeks. Today was not very good at all. I had a few misreads out there, and I hit some bad putts as well."
Woods missed makeable birdie putts on Sunday's first two holes, then set the tone for the day at the par-3 fourth. His tee shot carried long, some 35 feet past the pin, and he three-putted for bogey. That was the first sign that, for once, Tiger might be catchable. Yang, who had birdied the third hole, tied Woods for the lead with a par at the fourth. Woods dropped another stroke at the par-3 eighth when he caught the left greenside bunker, ran his sand shot across the green to the fringe and missed his par putt.
Reality appeared to be returning when Woods pounded his second shot, a 282-yard 3-wood, onto the green at the par-5 11th and two-putted for birdie to regain the lead. Then came the reversal for Woods. At the par-4 12th, he bogeyed and Yang parred: tie ballgame. At 13, both parred. At the drivable par-4 14th, Woods hit his tee shot into a greenside bunker, and Yang found the fairway. Yang's beautiful pitch-and-run was never going anywhere but in the cup. It was a stunning eagle, the shot heard 'round the Tiger world, and the shot of the tournament until Yang topped it at the 18th hole with his hybrid shot. "I thought, Ah, I do have a chance," Yang said.
Woods sank his putt for birdie to keep his chances alive, but he was suddenly going into the last four holes one shot down.
"The tournament turned on that two-hole stretch," Woods said. "I missed my putt at 13, he made his and then he chipped in on the next hole. I didn't execute."
The tension was palpable on the closing holes but Yang didn't wilt. At least, not until the par-3 17th. He played first and put a 7-iron shot in the middle of green, 25 feet short. Tiger went long and explained what happened.
"Y.E. hit a good shot but got the wrong gust, and you could see his ball stand up," Woods said. "I hit my shot and got the downwind gust. I made a sweet swing. I couldn't ask for a better golf swing, just hit it right over the top of the flag."
The grass was thick behind the green and Woods, normally brilliant with his short game, struck a stubby pitch that came up eight feet short. Yang, putting through a large area of shade, left his first putt 10 feet short. Woods went next, missing his par putt, but Yang also missed, lipping out. They went to the 18th with Yang still one ahead.
Tiger slipped his drive into prime position on the right side of the fairway. Yang drove into the fringe on the left side. That brought a grove of trees into play, not to mention the greenside bunkers with the back-left pin position. What transpired next was a true goose-bump moment. Yang hit a 3-hybrid from 210 yards over the trees, over the bunkers and right at the pin. The ball landed on the green, just short of the pin, released and ran 10 feet past. As PGA Championship highlights go, this one ranks just behind Shaun Micheel's 7-iron to within inches at Oak Hill in 2003.
"Pretty classy, wasn't it?" said A.J. Montecinos, Yang's caddie.
Yang admitted that he sweated it out until the final putt which he holed, by the way, for a birdie. "I've seen through highlights that Tiger makes some miraculous shots and miraculous putts throughout his career," Yang said. "I've admired and respected him. So on the 18th green when he was making that chip shot honestly, I was praying it wouldn't go in." After reporters laughed, Yang added, "So was I intimidated? Yeah, I guess I was a bit."
He drew a round of applause from writers when he was asked to explain his thoughts on 18 in his limited English. "I think only, Tiger chipping, missing the chipping and thinking just, Please," he said, laughing.
Perhaps Yang shouldn't have been such a surprise. He did beat Woods when he won the HSBC Championship in China in 2007, a European Tour event, and Padraig Harrington said on Saturday night that Yang is a good frontrunner and a formidable, experienced player who should be taken seriously. Well, Yang will be taken seriously now, and he's sure to be a national hero in golf-happy South Korea.
"He's always been a wonderful ballstriker," Woods said. "The only thing that held him back was the flat stick. Today, he executed his game plan, drove it beautifully and hit his irons in the correct spots. He played beautifully."
When he won the Honda Classic, Yang had a shaky finish, but he was solid at Hazeltine. "I've visualized playing against the best player quite a few times and always sort of dreamed about this," Yang said. "So when I was at home watching Tiger, I'd try to visualize and bring up a mock strategy on how to win if I ever played against Tiger. When the chance came, I sort of [felt] that, Hey, I could play a good round and Tiger could always have a bad day. I guess today was one of those days."
Asked if he'd like a rematch with Woods someday, Yang laughed. "Never again," he said. "I would like to stay the guy who won over Tiger at the PGA Championship and that's it. No re-dos."
Yang outplayed the other pursuers, who melted away in mid-round. Harrington suffered a disaster for the second straight week. He lost the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone when he pitched into a pond at the 16th hole and made a triple-bogey 8. Sunday, he bombed out of the PGA at the par-3 eighth. He pushed his tee shot into the lake and hit his next ball left of the green. From there, in shades of Firestone, he pitched his ball over the green and into the lake again. This time, the 8 was a quintuple bogey.
U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover bogeyed three of the last four holes on the front nine to fall back. Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen drew to within two before he bogeyed the 12th and doubled the 13th, and Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who also got to within two, played the last 11 holes in three over par. No one else made a serious run on another blustery day that led to high scores. Yang's 70, in fact, tied for low round of the day.
Who would've thought that Yang's Sunday best would be five strokes better than Woods's?
"I just didn't get it done," Woods said.
In the Year of the Buzzkill, Tiger, you were not alone.