When Tiger Woods goes into the final round of a major golf tournament, after all, he always wins, often not because of his own brilliance on the fairways – though inevitably there are moments of that, too – but because his opponents collapse at the mere sight of him atop the leader board.
Not this time.
Mr. Yang was the one with the magic-wand chips and cool putter. He was the one with the toothy grin and split-the-fairway drives. He was the one who sailed the ball – with courageous precision – 206 yards over a tree on the last hole to leave it eight feet from the hole and put an exclamation point on one of the biggest upsets in golf, maybe sports, history.
Woods, meanwhile, was the one left snarling. He was the one missing eight-foot puts with metronome regularity. Ultimately, he was the one who proved vincible on this blustery day outside Minneapolis – the kind Minnesotans say is perfect for walleye fishing – which may now change the dynamics on the professional golf tour.
Or at least we can pretend it will.
Before we go any father, let’s clear up one thing: Tiger Woods won five tournaments this year after coming off major knee surgery, a record that most people would consider worth an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Not Tiger.
He measures his success by victories in the majors, and Sunday’s loss at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., was his last chance this year to win one of the big four, after coming up short in the Masters, the US Open, and the British Open, where he didn’t even make the cut.
Even worse, he lost Sunday after going into the round with a two-shot lead, something he had never done in 14 previous majors when he was leading on the last day. And who was this Yang guy, anyway? The native South Korean didn’t take up golf until he was 19. Woods, seemingly, took it up at 19 days. Yang taught himself at a driving range outside Seoul almost as an afterthought.
Woods was trained by his father from the time he was teething to win tournaments – and did. Woods has won 70 PGA Tour victories. Yang, only one.
“Until I was 19 and picked up my first club, I was like anybody else in the world, just an average Joe,” Yang said. “Then I feel in love with golf.”
Yet it was the indefatigable South Korean who was hoisting the trophy at the end of the day on Sunday – and getting a congratulatory call from South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, which underscores how big a victory this was in his homeland.
In fact, Yang’s victory marked the first ever by an Asian-born player in one of golf’s four majors.
His storybook triumph will, no doubt, inspire a new generation of South Koreans – and perhaps Asians – to pick up a wedge and a hybrid club. It’s not that golf isn’t already popular in the region. It is. Wildly. But look what fellow countryman Se Ri Pak’s victories on the LPGA Tour starting in the late 1990s did for young women in South Korea. There are now so many talented young South Koreans on the American women’s tour that on some Sundays the leader board reads like the Seoul phonebook.
Yang’s improbable victory on one of golf’s biggest stages – and against the hegemonic Tiger – will have its own ripple effects. The way he did it was noteworthy enough – with an almost calm insouciance. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t supposed to win. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t speak much English and didn’t read all the stories about whey he shouldn’t win. It didn’t hurt that he plays well in windy conditions, which is why he used to be called “son of the wind” in Korea.
“I personally know Yang and what distinguishes him from other players is his emotional stability,” South Korean golf coach Kim Won-jun told the Associated Press.
Yang certainly was unflappable one on Sunday. He was the one who sunk the chip on the 14th hole for an eagle and the first lead of the tournament. He was the one who went into the final hole with a precarious one-shot lead and daringly arced his hybrid over the tree.
Then he sank the put, giving him a three-shot victory, punctuated by a Tiger-like fist pump.
“I visualized this quite a few times, playing the best player in the final round in a major championship,” Yang told reporters on Sunday. “When the chance came, I sort of thought that, hey, I could always play a good round of golf and Tiger – Tiger’s good, but he could always have a bad day.”
NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller is always asking from the broadcast booth: When is someone going to stand up to Tiger in a final round? On Sunday, an unknown South Korean who used to be a bodybuilder did.
But don’t expect once a Tiger vanquished, always a Tiger vanquished. He thrives on challenges almost more than anyone in sports. He’ll no doubt be back with a trophy in a major – soon.