News & Opinion

10 years ago, Yang topples golf's giant

As Tiger Woods sets his sights on winning his 16th major next week at the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, I can't help but think of the one that got away. It was nearly 10 years ago that South Korea's Y.E. Yang pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports.

Woods held a two-stroke lead going into the final round of the PGA at Hazeltine. He was 14-for-14 in majors and 36-1 overall when leading after 54 holes. He was The Terminator. He was more of a sure thing than New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. This was supposed to be the next step on the way to breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships.

Y.E. Yang
In the 2009 PGA, Y.E. Yang proved that Tiger Woods, at the height of his powers, was beatable.

No one expected Yang to hang with Woods, let alone win, except for Yang and his caddie, A.J. Montecinos. And not even Yang expressed much confidence on the eve of the final round during his post-round press conference.

"You never know in the world of sports and the game of golf," Yang said through an interpreter. "Woods has won 70 times now. I've only won once, so it's sort of 70-1 odds. But you might as well go for broke."

Before we relive one of the great upsets in golf, let's reflect for a moment on the back story of Yang, the son of vegetable farmers and a veteran of the South Korean army who once guarded a naval port and didn't begin hitting balls until he was 19, at a driving range. He learned to swing by watching instructional videos of Nicklaus and Nick Faldo. Yang's father begged him not to waste his time on such an elitist game. Woods was swinging clubs with Bob Hope on the “Mike Douglas Show” when he was 2, and won his first major at 21.

Only after Yang completed his mandatory military duty did he move to New Zealand to pursue a golf career. He won four times on the Korean Tour and Japan Golf Tour before graduating to the big leagues. Yang went from PGA Tour Qualifying School to his first Tour victory in March 2009 at the Honda Classic to the final group of the PGA in less than one year. He entered the PGA as the 110th-ranked golfer in the world.

Woods, of course, was No. 1. He was healthy after knee surgery that followed his astonishing triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. He arrived at Hazeltine having won back-to-back tournaments at the Buick Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, and led wire-to-wire through the first three rounds. With the passage of time, it's easy to forget that Yang opened with a 73 and then carded four bogeys on the first five holes of his second round. At that point, he stood 5 over par and seemed headed for a weekend off.

"I remember as we made the turn I hit him on the butt and said, 'Let's go to work,' " Montecinos said.

Yang rebounded to shoot 2-under 70 and on Moving Day, he signed for a 5-under 67, tying Woods for the low round of the tournament, and vaulted into the final pairing and a tie for second with Padraig Harrington.

With his nothing-to-lose attitude, Yang hung with Woods on the front nine on Sunday and was tied for the lead. Montecinos remembers how neither Woods nor caddie Steve Williams spoke a word to either of them for the first five holes, until Montecinos broke the silence.

"Playing with Tiger at a major is like every radio station playing at the same time," Montecinos said. "I finally looked over at Tiger as we were walking up the fifth fairway and said, 'Do you do this kind of stuff every week?' He laughed and said, 'Now you see why I don't play that much.' "

To hear Montecinos tell it, the turning point of the 2009 PGA is a moment in time largely overlooked. Montecinos flashes back to the par-3 13th when Woods had a chance to drop the hammer on Yang after he tugged a 5-wood into the bunker and faced a dicey lie.

"The wind was in from the right and it was 230 yards to the pin. Tiger hit 3-iron, and I've never seen a ball fly like this ball," Montecinos said. "As soon as he hit it, my jaw dropped. I thought it was going inside the flagstick, but it stopped 8 feet left of the pin. Yang exploded to 12 feet. We were outside of his ball. We made the putt and Tiger missed, and I think that was the pivotal moment there."

Indeed, it was one of those rare days for Woods when his putter betrayed him.

"I made absolutely nothing," said Woods, who had 33 putts during his round of 3-over-par 75.

The highlight-reel clip – one of two signature shots by Yang – happened one hole later when Yang chipped in from 60 feet with a 52-degree wedge at the 14th for eagle. Woods canned an 8-foot birdie putt, but walked off the green without at least a share of the lead for the first time since the opening round. Channeling Ed Fiori, the last guy to wrestle the 54-hole lead away from Woods, back at the 1996 Quad Cities Classic during Woods’ rookie year, Yang began to believe he had a chance. Montecinos compares it to the moment in Rocky IV when Rocky struck Drago and he drew blood – "He's not a machine. He's a man," barked Rocky's manager. Those words could just as easily have applied to Woods. After Woods fatted a 5-wood laying up at the par-5 15th, Yang turned to Montecinos and said, "Tiger nervous."

"I was like, You bet he is, Yang," Montecinos recalled.

Yang showed no fear, even after a three-putt bogey at 17 that kept his lead at one stroke going to 18, where he delivered the knockout punch with a 3-hybrid over a tree from 206 yards after driving left into the first cut of rough.

"He took it right at the flag," Montecinos recalled of Yang's other signature shot. "I said, ‘How close, do you think? He said, ‘Maybe 15-20 feet.’ It was even closer [about 12]. It was one of the best shots I've ever seen, given the circumstances. The strength of his mind is something I've learned a lot from and adopted to be a better person, a better caddie."

Woods’ last-gasp effort to chip in scooted past the hole and he made bogey, and Yang drained his birdie putt for the exclamation point. In one of the most memorable greenside celebrations, Yang powerlifted his golf bag over his head in jubilation. It's an upset that should rank alongside Francis Ouimet beating Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff at the 1913 U.S. Open and Jack Fleck defeating Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open.

"Everyone calls him the Buster Douglas of the PGA Tour because we took down Mike Tyson," Montecinos said. "It gave everyone else confidence that it could be done."

When Montecino went to pack Yang's bag in the locker room, the locker-room attendant came over and told him that he wouldn't believe how many pros were "jumping up and down and celebrating that you guys actually took down Goliath."

"You never know in life," Yang said at his winner's press conference. "This might be my last win as a golfer, but it sure is a great day."

Those words proved to be somewhat prophetic. He did win again, on the European Tour and last year in Japan, but he hasn’t qualified for the PGA Tour's playoffs since 2011. His lone start on the Tour this season was at the Sony Open at Hawaii (T-33), but he'll be competing at the PGA Championship as a past champion. Montecinos, incidentally, spent much of the ensuing decade on the bag of Kevin Streelman and recently began toting for another Korean, K.J. Choi. But his fondest memories are reserved for Aug. 16, 2009, when the farmers’ son prevented Woods from his 15th major title, signaling a wait of more than a decade before he would claim another one.

"He beat the giant,” Montecinos said, “and I'm the one who gave him the rocks and the sling to do it.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak