Yang seizes the moment to earn PGA title
CHASKA -- Tiger Woods for once looked human on a golf course when he lost the PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
More interesting in Woods' stunning defeat on Sunday was the unlikely victory of an unknown South Korean with a blue-collar background in Y.E. Yang.
The player ranked No. 110 in the world took down the No. 1 ranked player in the world.
Casual fans believe Woods choked away what would have been his 15th major championship. The truth is Woods had his game for the entire tournament but lost his putter in the fourth round when he needed it most.
"I hit it great all day and have absolutely nothing to show for it," Woods said on Sunday. "It was just a terrible day on the greens and I didn't make anything today. I played well enough to win but I didn't putt good enough to win."
The setting on the 13th green was set to play out like the same story heard in Woods' 14 majors before: All tied up, final round partner makes a mistake and Woods finds a birdie in a signature Tiger Woods moment to take the lead for good.
Then the extraordinary happened. Woods rolled an eight-foot birdie putt wide on the 13th green. It would have given him the lead heading into the critical holes at Hazeltine.
The Tiger moment vanished.
On No. 14, Yang chipped in for eagle on the par 4 to take a one-shot lead and Woods trailed for the first time all week. Yang took the Tiger moment for himself with a great shot that will forever be associated with the 91st Championship.
"I knew what it would come down to today was that I could always go out there and play a good round and Tiger could always have a bad round. And that's what happened," Yang said. "I've seen him make great shots and when he was chipping on the 18th green I prayed he would miss it."
Putting was a problem for Woods, but in the end he found trouble handling Minnesota's swirling and quick-changing August winds. Woods looked puzzled. He tossed grass into the air constantly in futile efforts to calculate wind direction.
No. 17 was Woods' best chance to mount a late rally, but a gust pushed his tee shot on the par 3 into the rough behind the green. It led to a bogey where a birdie was needed.
The Minnesota golfer has experienced these difficult to predict late summer winds before. Ask anyone who has fought the wind and found a greenside bunker on No. 18 at Bemidji Town & Country Club.
No one seemed more shocked about losing than Woods himself.
When he addressed the media, Woods looked down at the ground and described how he lost a major for the first time when leading after 54 holes. It was a contrast to the three previous meetings with the media when he stared down reporters with the confidence and presence that helped him win 14 previous majors.
The gallery wanted Woods to win. If Yang was an American, perhaps he might have earned the support of fans as one of the biggest underdogs to win a major sporting event.
Yang seems humble, humorous, confident and personable. He's good for a tour lacking personality beyond Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Yang's challenge to bridging the gap with fans is language as he needs an interpreter to communicate.
The son of rural farmers, Yang grew up wanting to be a bodybuilder and once dreamed of owning a gym. A knee injury and a trip to a small 60-yard driving range with friends when he was 19 years old set him on a path to Sunday's victory almost 20 years later.
Payne Stewart's 1991 U.S. Open victory and Rich Beem's 2002 PGA Championship will forever be part of Minnesota's golf history. Now consider what Minnesota's stage on the PGA Tour has meant to South Korea- a country where golf is a sport that traditionally ranks behind baseball and tennis.
Inbee Park, a South Korean, won the U.S. Women's Open at Interlachen last year. On Sunday, Yang became the first Asian born man to win a major championship. Those two recent victories justify South Korea's emergence as a player on golf's biggest stages.
"When you look back on Asian golf, Se Ri Pak's win in the U.S. Women's Open in 1998 was huge," Yang said. "I hope that my win is something parallel to that and shows golfers in Korea and Asia to build their dreams and expand their horizons."
If more Asian players become prominent on the PGA Tour, it will in some way be connected to Yang tracking and taking down Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship.
"I had nothing to lose and I just tried my best to not leave any regrets," Yang said when asked about how he found the strength to handle the pressure and stand up to Woods.
"I guess if I have any courage, that's where it comes from ... I don't consider myself great. I'm just a lower-level PGA Tour player and all I wanted to do was shoot par today."
Eric Stromgren is a sports reporter and photographer for the Bemidji Pioneer.