Underdog delivers huge upset

  • Follow Scott Michaux

CHASKA, Minn. -- Simply stunning.

Padraig Harrington surmised just the day before that it was a statistical inevitability that some day on some course, Tiger Woods would blow a last-day lead in a major championship. But did anyone really believe it would be Y.E. Yang to step up for the knockout blow in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National?

Want a rematch?

"Never again," said Yang.

This was a momentous day on so many fronts. It is a major achievement for Asian golf. Yang is the first Asian-born golfer to win a major championship, doing to Woods what Lu-Liang Huan couldn't do to Lee Trevino at the 1971 British Open, Isao Oaki failed to finish against Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open and T.C. Chen double-hit himself short against Andy North in the 1985 U.S. Open.

How improbable was this outcome? Even Yang himself downplayed his odds on Saturday night.

"He's won 70 times now; I've only won once," he said. "So it's sort of 70-to-1 odds. Might as well go for broke."

The odds were more lopsided than that against the greatest closer the game has ever witnessed. Not since Jack Fleck took on Ben Hogan in a U.S. Open playoff at The Olympic Club in 1955 had there been a more unlikely David beats Goliath scenario.

"It hasn't really sunken in yet, but I do know the significance of it," said Yang.

It was the first blow in the cloak of invincibility that Woods has weaved over every potential rival when he owns a piece of the lead on the final day of a major. Woods was 14-0 coming into Sunday in this situation, and his two-shot lead and wire-to-wire steadiness seemed like more than enough cushion for a guy who won each of the last two weeks on the PGA Tour.

When Harrington melted by making a hash of the shortest hole at Hazeltine -- hitting two balls in the water on the par-3 8th hole and taking 8 -- to fall from one shot off the lead to oblivion, Woods looked that much more secure.

When U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover peeled off the pace with four bogeys in a seven-hole stretch, it left the unlikely Yang in a two-man duel.

The 37-year-old South Korean who started playing the game at age 19 and calls himself a "below the average PGA Tour pro" didn't get much sleep the night before. He witnessed countless others yield in the face of Woods on television and tried to visualize a plan of his own if he ever found himself in Sunday's situation.

"I could always play a good round of golf and Tiger could always have a bad day," he said. "I guess today was one of those days."

Yang sells himself short. It's the second time in his career that he has beaten Woods, having held off the world No. 1 in the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai three years ago. But's its the first time he's taken Woods on head-to-head with these kind of stakes.

Far from being intimidated, Yang stepped up where others have failed. He hung with Woods for 13 holes and then took his first lead with a chip-in for eagle on the 14th hole. Woods never caught him again.

"He did all the things he needed to do at the right time," Woods said. "I think he played beautifully."

Like everyone else, Yang kept waiting for Woods to pull off another one of his great moments. Even after Yang delivered a staggering hybrid to 10 feet on the 18th green and Woods missed short in the rough, the eventual winner expected the worst -- or perhaps the best -- from Woods.

"Miss the chip ... please," Yang prayed.

Yang simply looked like he was having fun out there in the middle of the cauldron. He was smiling all the way around the course, tossing balls to the galleries and taking aim at the flag sticks like he had nothing else to lose. It was absolutely charming when he knocked in the final birdie putt and got so caught up celebrating he forgot to get his ball out of the cup so his playing partner could finish. Even Tiger, gutted as he was, had to smirk at that.

Then Yang clean-and-jerked his golf bag over his head. He could have lifted the world on his shoulders at that moment.

"This might be my last win as a golfer," he said. "But it sure was a great day."

Who knows? Rich Beem hasn't won a single thing since beating Woods at Hazeltine seven years ago with the same carefree final-round performance. Here's hoping Yang isn't just a one-hit wonder. His enthusiasm doesn't get lost in translation.

Five months ago, a much smaller media crowd was around when Yang broke his maiden by winning the Honda Classic at (of all places) PGA National, where the PGA of America is headquartered. The next day, Yang was walking past me near the putting green at Doral.

"Y.E., congratulations. Great playing," I said, figuring he understood at least that much English.

"Thank you," he said with a wide smile and deep nod. Then he grabbed his caddie, reached into his bag, pulled out his cell phone and clicked a picture of me. We both laughed and he walked on.

It's impossible not to like the guy. And it's impossible not to respect the way he went out on the biggest day of his life and took down the formerly invincible man who will go down as the greatest golfer who ever lived.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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