By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009
CHASKA, Minn., Aug. 16 -- There had to be a list of players who could wake up on a Sunday morning, face both a deficit to and a pairing with Tiger Woods in the final round of a major championship, and handle both themselves and their opponent's uncanny ability to execute when others collapse. Phil Mickelson would seem to have the game, Padraig Harrington the nerve, Jim Furyk the focus, Sergio García the talent, Rocco Mediate the what-me-worry attitude.
Prior to Sunday, though, none of them -- indeed, no one in the world -- had felled a front-running Woods in the final round of a major. The statistics had become rote in golf circles -- 14 times a leader, 14 times a winner, for perhaps the best player ever.
"I've seen throughout Tiger's career," Y.E. Yang said Sunday evening here, "that a lot of players have folded."
Yang, now, is the one who did not. Faced with both a two-stroke deficit and the specter of Woods as his playing partner, the 37-year-old South Korean -- known to only hardcore golf fans prior to this weekend -- pulled off his sport's most astonishing result in the dozen years since Woods first won a major. Sunday, he shot a 2-under-par 70 to not only catch Woods, but to resoundingly pass him, winning the 91st PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club by three shots.
"I've sort of visualized this quite a few times," Yang, the first Asian-born major champion, said through an interpreter. "Playing against the best player, if not one of the best players in the history of golf, playing with him in the final round in a major championship. . . . When the chance came, I sort of thought that, hey, I could always play a good round of golf and -- Tiger's good, but he could always have a bad day. And I guess today was one of those days."
That's precisely what it was. Previously, when Woods led majors, he averaged 69.5 shots in his final round. His playing partner, faced with the swirl and the spotlight, averaged 73.1. Not only did Yang buck that trend, but Woods did too, with a closing 75. Previously, too, when Woods led those majors, he authored the shots that people remember still -- the putt he stalked in the playoff against Bob May at the 2000 PGA at Valhalla, the chip-in on the 16th at Augusta in the 2005 Masters, the birdie putt on the 72nd hole in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines that forced a playoff with Mediate.
Sunday, though, it was Yang who provided two signature moments. The first was a brilliant chip shot from 60 feet across the green at the drivable par-4 14th, a championship-turning eagle. The last was a 206-yard hybrid up the hill at No. 18, when his advantage over Woods was a single shot, when his nerves might have frayed. He struck it clean -- "Pretty classy, wasn't it?" said his caddie, A.J. Montecinos -- and it landed eight feet from the cup, finishing off Woods.
"I don't think he really missed a shot all day," Woods said of his playing partner.
What all this means for Yang is somewhat obvious, because first-time major winners -- 2009 U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover and British Open champ Stewart Cink among them -- talk about how their lives change, how they have to deal with more attention and requests for their time. Yang will deal with that going forward.
"It hasn't really sunken in yet," he said.
What it means for Woods, though, isn't as clear. He has now finished second in a major six times, but none in this fashion. Still just more than a year removed from surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament and fix a stress fracture in his left leg, Woods finished the season without a major for the first time since 2004. Though he won the previous two weeks on the PGA Tour before arriving at Hazeltine, his career at this point is solely about winning majors, about matching and surpassing Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 titles.
Afterward, Woods eschewed historical perspective. His focus: His putter. His &$*#@! putter.
"I made absolutely nothing," Woods said. "I just have to say, a terrible day on the greens, and I had it at the wrong time. I either misread the putt or had bad putts. . . .
"I had plenty of looks. I was certainly in control of the tournament for most of the day, but just didn't make anything today. I hit the ball great off the tee, hit my irons well. I did everything I needed to do -- except get the ball in the hole."
That, then, was one of the stunning developments, and it began early, when he couldn't convert an eight-footer for birdie on the first, when he could have opened up a three-shot lead. He three-putted the fourth for the second consecutive day. He missed a 12-footer for birdie at 10, an 18-footer for birdie at 13 -- where Yang made a gutsy sand save to remain tied -- and another very makeable 12-footer at 15.
"I was making nothing," he said.
Still, when the two walked to the 17th tee, Woods trailed by one, and Yang's tee shot on the 174-yard par 3 was his only, as Woods labeled it, "mistake," one that got caught in a gust and landed 40 feet short of the green.
Woods had his opening. When the wind changed, he stepped away once from his tee shot, and reloaded. "I made just a sweet swing," he said, but by then the wind was with him, and the ball flew the flagstick, landing in the deep rough. Yang's error and a poor lag putt led to a bogey, but Woods bogeyed too.
"All the other 14 major championships I've won," Woods said, "I've putted well for the entire week. And today was a day that didn't happen."
When Yang hit that final, flawless approach into 18, he had a birdie putt, with Woods in the rough to the left of the pin. With anyone else, the tournament was over. Yang didn't think so.
"I've seen through highlights that Tiger makes some miraculous shots," Yang said. "I've seen it throughout his career, . . . so on the 18th green, when he was making that chip shot, I was -- honestly, I was sort of praying it wouldn't go in."
It didn't, and when Yang knocked his final birdie putt in, clinching the unlikeliest of championships, he pumped both his fists. Woods, left with a meaningless par putt, looked down at his ball, still in his hand, and bent to place it at his mark. He had never been in this situation before -- standing on the 72nd hole of a major, having frittered away the lead -- and perhaps the best way to deal with it was not to watch the other man celebrate, but to finish out his own game, shake his conqueror's hand, and move on.