November 16, 2021

Spirit of the Game: Yang Yong-Eun's Big Win at the PGA Championship

The U.S. PGA Championship has thrown up some surprise winners and produced some stunning upsets over the ages but few can match the drama of 2009.

For some players, such as David Toms, Rich Beem and Wayne Grady, the PGA Championship was their lone major title. But for others, including John Daly and Vijay Singh, it served as a launchpad to greater success.

If South Korea’s Yang Yong-eun never wins another major, he will be hard-pressed topping the drama and significance of his win in 2009.

Not only did the 37-year-old claim his first major, he became the first Asian-born male to win one of golf’s big four titles. He did it in a way no other professional had before, coming from behind in the final round to beat the seemingly-invincible Tiger Woods in a head-to-head battle.

“I’m living my dream,” Yang said at the time as he was instantly thrust into a world of celebrations and adulation from supporters in his homeland.

Despite several near misses since Taiwan’s Lu Liang-huan ran Lee Trevino desperately close at the 1971 British Open, the golfing world had patiently awaited the first Asian-born winner of a major.

Japan’s Isao Aoki, one of golf’s best exponents of the short game, finished runner-up to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open and five years later Taiwan’s T.C. Chen tied for second behind Andy North at the same event.

But if the arrival of the first Asian champion was a minor surprise last year, the manner in which it happened was a complete shock to the golfing world.

Although he had won his first PGA Tour event earlier that year, the odds were stacked against Yang winning the last grand slam of the year.

Even at the start of the final round, when he was tied for second place and two shots behind his playing partner Woods, few gave him any real hope of winning.

Afterall, he was ranked 110th in the world, playing in only his second season on the PGA Tour and had never even been in contention at a grand slam before.

Woods, by comparison, was at the top of his game and the sordid revelations about his private life were still unknown to the public.

Yang also had to fend off the defending champion, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who was tied with him at the start of the day, but he spectacularly crashed out of contention with a terrible front nine and it quickly became a two-horse race.

Yang drew level with Woods after the fourth hole and again at the sixth. Each time, he let Woods immediately regain the outright lead but the American was unable to pull away and after 12 holes the pair were locked together.

The championship suddenly took an unexpected and defining twist on the 14th hole when Yang chipped in for eagle and Woods was unable to come back, ending his day with a bogey at the last hole for a final round 75.

By then Yang was in complete control and completed his magical day with a stunning approach for a birdie at the last for a 70 and an almost unimaginable three-shot winning margin.

It was a pivotal moment for Asian golf although Yang was uncertain about his lasting legacy.

“I would like to stay as the guy who won over Tiger at the PGA Championship,” he said.