Y. E. Yang stunned the golf world by overtaking Tiger Woods to become the first Asian man to win a major title

Y. E. Yang stunned the golf world by overtaking Tiger Woods to become the first Asian man to win a major title

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.
Fred Vuich/SI

There was no way to prepare for the scene that played out on Sunday evening on the final green of the 91st PGA Championship. Tiger Woods was going through the motions of lining up a par putt that meant … absolutely nothing. On the edge of the green, 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 two days earlier. The fans around the green at Hazeltine National Golf Club, in Chaska, Minn., were muted, sensing that to cheer for Yang would further diminish Woods, who had lost not only a tournament but also his aura of indomitability. The game’s most ruthless closer was now on the business end of the biggest golf upset since a 20-year-old former caddie named Francis Oiumet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at the 1913 U.S. Open.

For all of his accomplishments it was Woods’s 14-for-14 record at closing out 54-hole leads in the majors that most contributed to his reputation for invincibility. That has been shattered now, not only because Tiger lost but also because of who beat him — a happy-go-lucky player who didn’t take up the game until age 19 and now becomes the first Asian male to win a major. Then there was the stunning way that Woods submitted to defeat. The game’s most imaginative shotmaker could never hit it close when it really mattered; the greatest clutch putter in history needed 33 putts, repeatedly blowing opportunities to put away, and then catch, Yang. Woods has always had a metaphysical mastery of the moment, an unparalleled ability to summon the right shot at the right time, but this time it was Yang who produced the decisive magic.

Having missed out on a record-tying fifth PGA Championship victory and 15th major title, Tiger could do little more than blame his putter and offer some hollow philosophical words. “It was just a bad day at the wrong time, and that’s the way it goes,” he said.

Yang’s victory completes one of golf’s most unlikely journeys. He grew up working on his family’s vegetable and rice farm on the island of Jeju. In his teens Yang was an aspiring bodybuilder whose grandest dream was to someday own his own gym. A knee injury at 18 ended his heavy-duty weightlifting, and he found his way to a local driving range, where he giddily whacked balls into a net with a baseball grip. Self-taught with instructional videos, Yang was breaking par within three years but his development was slowed when he served almost two years of compulsory military service. (The country-club softies who have made a habit of lying down for Woods have collectively done little farming and spent even less time guarding naval installations.) By 1997 Yang had earned a place on the small-potatoes Korean PGA tour, and over the years he steadily moved up to the Asian and then Japanese tours. Heading to Hazeltine he had nine worldwide wins across 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 first round Tiger hit 12 fairways and 15 greens in regulation while firing a flawless 67 that gave him the outright lead. Yang was six back after a scrappy 73. On Friday a big prairie wind blew across Hazeltine, and of the top 15 players heading into the round Woods was the only one to break par, with a two-under 70 that stretched his lead to four strokes. Little noticed was Yang’s remarkable turnabout 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 for ninth, six strokes back.

Saturday brought ideal scoring conditions but instead of trying to blow open the tournament, Woods played prevent defense, aiming at the middle of most greens and following with delicate lag putts. “I felt that with my lead, I erred on the side of caution most of the time,” he said of a ho-hum 71 that featured two birdies against one bogey. His lead was cut to two, though, thanks to the go-for-broke play of Yang, who continued to attack Hazeltine en route to the low round of the day, a 67. Asked about sharing a leader board with Woods, Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els, Yang said graciously, “It’s a privilege to be listed on top with those names, great names and great players that I admire and respect.”

But Els and Harrington and so many others carry the scar tissue from assorted Tiger maulings. Yang actually came in undefeated in showdowns with Woods, having tangled 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 of Asia’s biggest events. Still, when Yang found out on Saturday night that he would be paired with Woods for the final round, “My heart nearly exploded from being so nervous,” he said, and no wonder: In Woods’s 14 major championship victories his Sunday scoring average was almost four strokes lower than his playing partner’s.

Yang admitted to a restless night, but he felt at peace by the time he got to the 1st tee on Sunday. His humility might have been his greatest asset. “I think that great names, when they tee off with Tiger, their competitive juices flow out and they go head-to-head and try to win,” Yang said on Sunday night. “I don’t consider myself as a great golfer so my goal today was just to shoot even par.”

But Yang served notice that he had come to play by knocking down the flagstick on the 3rd hole for a key birdie. When Woods three-putted number 4, he dropped into a tie with Yang. 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 ago Yang, his wife, Young Ju Park, and their three sons moved to Dallas. Before that they lived in Palm Springs, Calif., “and there was a casino there he would go to all the time to play blackjack,” says Yang’s former caddie Jason Hamilton. “He would often go home with a couple of thousand dollars in his pocket. The guy is a gambler at heart.”

Yang ripped a drive just short of the 14th green and then played a delicate pitch-and-run that clanged off the flagstick and disappeared for a stunning eagle, leading to a lusty fist pump that Yang called “my best Tiger imitation.” Now a stroke back, Woods looked increasingly tight and unsure, repeatedly throwing grass in the air and rehearsing his swing. Yang, meanwhile, never stopped smiling, playing with the carefree alacrity of a man who knew history awaited him.

Still a stroke ahead at 18, he smashed a drive down the left side, leaving 210 yards to a pin tucked in the back left corner. Even on the most important shot of his life Yang’s tempo was as languid as always, and with a 21-degree hybrid he carved a majestic draw that settled eight feet from the hole. It was a strike of such purity and importance it immediately earned a place in the pantheon of the game’s greatest 72nd hole shots, alongside Tommy Armour’s three-iron at the 1927 U.S. Open, the one-iron Ben Hogan hit at the ’50 U.S. Open, Jack Fleck’s seven-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 at the ’95 U.S. Open and Shaun Micheel’s seven-iron at the 2003 PGA. Woods couldn’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 a 70 and an eight-under total of 280.

Woods was classy in defeat, saying Yang “played beautifully.” At the end of his press conference Woods met his waiting family in the parking lot. Like any dad who’s had a rough day at the office, he needed a hug from his little girl, so he scooped up two-year-old Sam and they plopped down together in the driver’s seat of a courtesy car, an embrace that lasted at least 20 seconds. After a couple of minutes of talking and giggling, Sam was gently placed in a car seat and Tiger changed out of his spikes while sitting in the driver’s seat. Turns out he 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 and various tournament dignitaries. Yang is not the champion this crowd had been looking forward to greeting, but the polite applause grew louder as he acknowledged the clapping with four long, courtly bows. After lustily downing a flute 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 my life.”

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