Golf: South Korean Tiger-tamer Yang excited at second chapter of his career

Y.E. Yang at the 2021 Sony Open in Hawaii. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

His PGA Tour career stats read as 193 starts, two wins, 12 top-10s, 33 top-25s, a career best 10th in the FedExCup standings and nearly US$9 million (S$12.1 million) in prize earnings.

Throw in seven other combined wins on the DP World Tour (formerly European 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 Jan 15, will turn a new chapter in his golf book when he makes his debut on PGA Tour Champions at the Chubb Classic starting in Naples, Florida on Friday (Feb 18).

A late bloomer in the game - Yang first picked up a club when he was 19 - the South 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 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 learnt 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 including seven other siblings on Jeju island and dreamt of becoming a bodybuilder and owning a gym.

After 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 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 Championship 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 Major on the back of five wins that year and had never lost an outright 54-hole lead on 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 (30 professional wins globally), who first set the trail for other Asian golfers to chase their American dreams, in the over-50 circuit and hopes to pip his friend to the honour of becoming the first Korean to win on the Champions Tour.

"I am excited by new expectations," said Yang. "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 many 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 US, 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. He 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.

Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, marketing & communications, Asia-Pacific for the PGA Tour and is based in Malaysia.

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