Monday, August 17, 2009

After beating Tiger, life will for Y.E. Yang

Whenever Y.E. Yang was in a tournament with Tiger Woods, he would sit in the clubhouse and think about playing against the world's most famous athlete.

He'd visualize different scenarios, come up with strategies.

Deep down, he had a secret that he shared with no one: Yang would imagine beating Woods.

"The good players, the great names that you've mentioned, when they tee off with Tiger, their competitive juices sort of flow out and they go head to head and try to win," Yang said through an interpreter. "For me, I don't consider myself as a great golfer. I'm still more of the lower-than-average PGA Tour players."

Not anymore. In a matter of four hours Sunday, Yang's life — and that of every aspiring golfer around the world, but particularly in Asia — changed forever.

Not only did the 37-year-old South Korean become the first Asian player to win one of golf's majors — the PGA Championship — he took down none other than the sport's No. 1 guy to do it. Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia — they all tried and failed.

Not Yang, who was poised, unflappable and determined throughout.

Not bad for someone who took up golf at 19 simply as a way to pay bills and ended up finding the job of his dreams.

"Honestly, I'm not prepared, I think," he said. "It's going to be a bit tough, sure, I know that. It's going to be fun, too. But honestly, I've never been in this spot, so I really can't assess it. This is my first time. I'm just going to try to go and improvise."

Pretty good plan, considering that's what got him here.

Yang — his full name is Yong Eun Yang — grew up on an island called Jeju, about an hour by plane from Seoul. His father is a farmer and his older brother is in the agricultural business, too. Yang wanted to be a bodybuilder, and dreamed of someday owning his own gym.

But when he was about 17 or 18, he blew out his knee. He was, he said, "like anybody else in the world, an average Joe."

Then a friend suggested he go work at the local driving range. It paid minimum wage, but Yang could eat and sleep there.

"The driving range was no longer than the tent we are in right now, probably about 60 yards, tops," he said, while speaking in the interview room. "The first grip I ever had was a baseball grip, and I was just whacking it into the net. It just felt fun."

The more he played, the more he fell in love with the game. He practiced for three months before he played his first round, and shot 101. It was three years before he broke par.

There have been a few successful Asian golfers over the years — Japan's Isao Aoki finished second to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open — but Korea has been late to the game. Yang didn't even have a coach when he first started playing, teaching himself by watching tournaments on TV — his early idols were Nick Faldo and Nicklaus — and watching videotapes. He thought maybe he'd be a club pro or teach at a driving range.

But the more he learned about golf, the more his horizons expanded. He started playing tournaments in Korea, then moved to the Japan Golf Tour. He's played on the PGA Tour the last three years, going through qualifying school in 2007 and 2008 before winning at the Honda Classic earlier this year.

"My life has been sort of very slow, actually," said Yang, the only member of his family who lives outside of Jeju. "And I've always tried to take it a step at a time. I didn't really look and envision myself 10 years, two decades away."

Which is why, though he knows its significance, he can't yet fathom what his victory at Hazeltine National will mean to South Koreans and Asian players and fans, in general.

Golf is hugely popular in Asia, the game's fastest-growing market. But while it has produced some stars — 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan carries a head cover that looks like a Cabbage Patch Kid doll of himself, complete with spiky hair, sunglasses and visor — the game is still a work in progress.

The men's game, at least.

Since Se Ri Pak won the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open as a rookie in 1998, seven Korean players have combined to win 11 majors on the LPGA Tour. Yet Yang and K.J. Choi are the only PGA Tour players who learned the game in South Korea before coming to America.

China has no players on the PGA Tour. Jeev Milkha Singh, who finished tied for 67th on Sunday, is the first Indian golfer to play at the Masters and qualify for the U.S. Open.

"Golf in Asia has been growing steadily, so to have the guy who finally found a way to beat Tiger on Sunday is so big for the region," said Geoff Ogilvy, an Australian. "It's hard for us here in the U.S. to imagine the impact this will have."

Added PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka, "Earlier this week, I said the addition of golf to the Olympics is the single biggest thing to accelerate the growth of the game. I stand corrected. ... There are now going to be other Asian nations saying, `OK, how are we going to prepare our players to go play on the international stage?'"

Knowing one of their own has broken into golf's mainstream by winning a major is sure to inspire and motivate young players throughout Asia. Indeed, in South Korea, golf fans woke up at 4 a.m. for the final round, some rushing over to a sports club in the Seoul suburb of Bundang when it opened two hours later.

"Seeing Yang ranked 110th in the world win against Tiger Woods, the best player in the world, I felt so proud to be a Korean today," Kim Soo-mi said as dozens of golfers practiced at an indoor driving range.

That's a heavy burden to put on Yang. Based on his performance Sunday, he'll be able to handle it.

He admitted he was nervous before playing Woods, and didn't sleep very well Saturday night. Once he stepped on the first tee, though, the nerves disappeared.

After all, he said, it wasn't as if they were in a UFC fight and Woods was going to bite him.

He was aggressive all day, making the two biggest shots — his chip on 14 and his approach on 18 — when he needed to. He was calm, never once getting caught up in the circus that is Tiger Woods in the last group on the final day of a major. Dozens of cameras track Woods' every move, the galleries are massive and golf etiquette is the last thing fans are worried about as they rush to see the next shot. Yang even had some fun with it, smiling and waving at a TV camera as he crossed the bridge at the turn, and giving a Woods-like fist pump when he made that spectacular chip on 14.

And when it was all over, hoisted his golf bag over his head — shades of the bodybuilder he once wanted to be.

"I guess the fearlessness comes from the fact that I know I'm doing my dream job," Yang said. "Every day I'm living my dream."


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