YE Yang in action; celebrates winning putt against Tiger Woods. Pic: Getty Images
By Chuah Choo Chiang
His PGA TOUR career stats read as 193 starts, two wins, 12 top-10s, 33 top-25s, a career best 10th on the FedExCup and nearly US$9 million in prize earnings. Throw in seven other combined wins on the DP World Tour and Japan Tour and his resume makes for a celebrated golf career.
More importantly, Y.E. Yang knows his name will forever be etched in the game’s folklore as the first Asian to hoist a major trophy, courtesy of a memorable head-to-head triumph over Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
Yang, who celebrated his 50th birthday on January 15, will turn a new chapter in his golf book this week when he makes his debut on PGA TOUR Champions at the Chubb Classic starting in Naples, Florida on February 18.
A late bloomer in the game – Yang first picked up a club when he was 19 – the Korean says he is still very much in love with golf which has allowed him to traverse the world’s airways to compete on the finest fairways. He believes every day offers a new beginning as he prepares for life on the over-50 circuit, which boasts of legends such as Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Darren Clarke and Fred Couples
“First of all, I love golf. I still like it and will always do in the future. I learned and gained a lot while playing golf,” said Yang. “I wonder what awaits me and I wonder what will happen next. I am excited because I am able to compete again, and I have high expectations.”
Like many of Asia’s first generation of golf stars, Yang’s journey and rise is inspiring. He grew up in a family comprising of seven other siblings on Jeju island and dreamt of becoming a bodybuilder and owning a gym. After suffering from an injury, he was introduced to golf at age 19 and started hitting balls by mimicking others. He also worked as a ball-picker at a local range and after his national service, Yang’s attention turned fully to golf as he first became a teaching professional before taking the plunge in the play-for-pay ranks.
With a dogged spirit, the muscular Korean enjoyed success on the domestic Korean tour and later in Japan, and it was at the 2006 HSBC Champions in China that his fame grew when he defeated a top-class field that included Woods. Yang subsequently earned his PGA TOUR card through Qualifying School in in 2007 and it took him just two years to stamp his mark at the highest level, first by winning The Honda Classic before going on to deliver one of sport’s greatest upsets when he stunned Woods at the PGA to rewrite golf history.
“I was not a famous player and if I had defeated a player similar as I was, it would not have been a topic for discussion,” said Yang of his come-from-behind win over Woods, who entered the PGA Championship on the back of five wins that year and had never lost an outright 54-hole lead in 36 previous occasions.
“It was a player with 70 wins versus a player with one win. At first, I didn’t realise I had hope to win a major but that dream came true and I am grateful. Wherever I go now, I have the pride that I am a major champion.”
So what does a golfer with Yang’s vast experience and calibre will look forward to on PGA TOUR Champions?
“There are a lot of legends on that tour with a better career than me. I will learn a lot from them. Whether it goes well or not, I think I will play more enjoyable golf than when I was younger. I’m going to be the youngest member on Champions and since I’m the youngest, I’m going to feel more spirit and energy,” he said.
He joins compatriot K.J. Choi, who first set the trail for other Asian golfers to chase their American dreams, in the over-50 circuit and hopes to joins his friend to the honour of becoming the first Koreans to win on Champions.
“I am excited by new expectations,” said Yang, who is a two-time International Team member at the Presidents Cup. “There’s something sad about getting older, but we golfers still have the opportunity for Champions Tour, so there’s another chance, right? It’s a tour with so many legends, so it’s an honour for me to be able to do it. I will learn a lot from those players.”
While Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama has joined Yang in Asia’s exclusive major club following his Masters win last year, the Korean hopes his own legacy will pave the way for others to shoot for the stars.
“If you have a dream, if you have a mindset that you can do it, you can do it,” said Yang. “I was 36 when I went to the U.S., I had children, and the average athlete retires at my age. But I decided to go America at that age. If I could do it, so can everyone.”
During the interview with Yang in Seoul, a banner with his photo adorned a wall at the front of the building. Yang said he was “a little embarrassed” seeing it but as Asian golf’s history-maker, it was only apt that a self-taught golfer who chased and achieved his dream is being celebrated in the simplest of manner. Now comes the next chapter.
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC, PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.