PGA Champion Y.E. Yang's Comeback Story Has Roots in Weight Room

The 91st PGA Championship, played at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

CHASKA, Minn., Aug. 16 -- Tiger Woods was swinging a golf club when he was 2, on television shows not long thereafter, setting the foundation for what would become a historic career. The man who beat Woods in the final round of a major -- the only one ever to come back on him -- didn't take up golf until he was 19, when he was, as he said, "an aspiring body builder." Y.E. Yang went to a driving range in his native South Korea and began hitting balls using a baseball grip, sculling them no farther than 60 yards.

"My biggest dream was to actually own a gym," Yang said Sunday night in the hour after he shot a 2-under-par 70 to beat Woods for the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

Since then, though, Yang has become an accomplished international golfer. Though he had never before contended in a major -- his best finish in eight tries was a tie for 30th at the 2007 Masters -- he had won five times in Japan; had beaten an elite field, Woods included, in a European Tour event in Shanghai; and had even won on the PGA Tour earlier this year at the Honda Classic in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"Until I was 19, after I picked up my first golf club, I was like anybody else in the world, just an average Joe," Yang said through an interpreter. "And as I started to pick up golf, I fell in love with it."

Yang, now, has further reason to love it, and he has a place in history as the first man to overtake Woods in the final round of a major. This is, for the 110th-ranked player in the world, a major accomplishment, and golf has rarely seen such an upset -- Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open comes to mind.

Now, Yang is a modern-day Fleck, even though top-flight players understand his ability.

"If you look at him as a player overall, he's always been a wonderful ball-striker," Woods said. "And I think the only thing that's really held him back was the flat stick."

The putter, though, held back Woods on Sunday, not Yang. That was one of the most remarkable developments on a remarkable day, because by Yang's own admission, the night before his first pairing with Woods at a major was a bit restless, waking up "two, three times," he said.

"I did have a rough night yesterday," Yang said. "But as soon as I got onto the first tee, I became myself. It's always what I've dreamed about. It was always what I sort of [envisioned].

"I wasn't that nervous, honestly, because it's a game of golf. It's not like you're in an octagon where you're fighting against Tiger and he's going to bite you or swing at you with his 9-iron."

Yang, then, was comfortable doing the swinging, and he never backed down from Woods, overcoming his own bogey at the fifth hole with a string of steadying pars, then applying pressure of his own with the shot he will remember for the rest of his life -- a chip across the 14th green that dropped for eagle.

"He's just not scared," said his caddie, A.J. Montecinos. "He's just a world-class player, and he's got nothing to lose. He said, 'I'm not nervous.' "

To this point, South Korean golf has been known mostly for its spectacular female players, led by LPGA Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak. Yang, in fact, became the first Asian-born men's major champion.

And on the 18th green, he celebrated in an old-school way -- for him. After Woods had putted out, Yang went to his golf bag, still full of clubs, and hoisted it over his head. He does not, it turns out, own a body-building gym. He has something better.

"I have the best job in the world," Yang said, "doing what I love the best, I love the most. . . . Every day I'm living my dream, and I also have this mentality where I try my best and leave no regrets. If it doesn't work out, then that's that."

Sunday night, it worked out, and because it did, golf is different.

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