For Yang, a Nation's Embrace

Y.E. Yang towers over the people of Jeju in South Korea, a country in which Yang has become a national hero.
Y.E. Yang towers over the people of Jeju in South Korea, a country in which Yang has become a national hero. (By Kim Ho-chun -- Yonhap News Agency Via Associated Press)

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By Stella Kim and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SEOUL, Aug. 17 -- Celebrations erupted Monday for Yang Yong-eun, the little-known golfer who defeated Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship on Sunday, as residents of his home island of Jeju hailed the first South Korean to claim one of golf's major prizes.

Yang, 37, known in the United States as Y.E. Yang, grew up in a poor family on Jeju Island, a resort on the southern tip of South Korea. "We are setting up arches to decorate the island and making banners saying 'Congratulations Yang Yong-eun on winning the PGA Championship,' " said Park Yong-nam, director for operations at Ora Country Club, where Yang played and coached in the 1990s.

Yang discovered golf when a family friend allowed him to work at a driving range. He taught himself how to play after picking up a club at the range.

Across golf-mad South Korea, his victory seemed likely to inspire national honors for Yang and even greater devotion to a game that became popular here only about 20 years ago.

On Jeju Island, the celebrating began with members of his family.

"I am ecstatic, and the feeling is indescribable," said Yang's brother, Yang Yong-hyuk. "All my parents could do was to shout and cheer. We are not tired at all after having spent all night watching television.

"I knew that my brother would win from Tiger Woods's facial expression, because he had the sour face as if things were not working," Yang Yong-hyuk said. "I know his winning face, and this time he did not have it."

"My brother deserves the win because he worked so hard and on his own. He practiced and practiced until he got the shot right. He could not afford lessons, and all he could do was to teach by himself and practice until his shirt collars wore off," he said.

Golf took off in South Korea in the late 1980s, with the official approval of then-president Roh Tae-woo, who personally granted licenses to golf courses. Business conglomerates built courses where government officials were invited to play with executives and lobbyists.

A game for the elite soon became a quasi-religion for the masses. Despite a chronic shortage of courses and some of the highest golf taxes in the world, the golf-playing population in South Korea is now estimated at about 4 million -- one of every 12 people.

Still, there were just 251 courses in South Korea at the end of 2006, compared with 2,500 courses in Japan and 18,000 in the United States. For Koreans to find tee times, they frequently have to leave the country.

About 1.25 million traveled abroad in 2007 to play golf, spending about $800 million, according to the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean daily.

To reduce golfing trips and limit currency outflows, the government has proposed building more courses and reducing taxes on golf. Total taxes on 18 holes of golf in South Korea come to about $76.

On Jeju Island, Yang's victory will soon allow a slight reduction in greens fees.

"We will be launching a Yang Yong-eun promotion discount," said Park, the golf course manager. "We are so proud of Yang. Most golf practice ranges and country clubs should have the banners up by this afternoon."

Harden reported from Tokyo.


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