Give Yang his due for Tiger triumph

August, 17, 2009

Not long after hitting what will come to be known as the greatest rescue club shot in major championship history to date, following his perma-smile posing with the gleaming Wanamaker Trophy as photographers clicked away, just minutes past hugs with family and high fives with newfound fans among the Hazeltine gallery, Yong-Eun Yang sat down before reporters and was asked what it meant to win the 91st PGA Championship.

"You never know in life," he said through an interpreter. "This might be my last win as a golfer, but it sure is a great day."

Last win as a golfer? Anyone who witnessed Yang post the lowest score of any player in the field (67-70) during each of the final two rounds would dispute that suggestion. The 37-year-old from Seoul, South Korea, established himself as a proficient ball striker, a competent putter and, most importantly, an impregnable competitor under pressure.

Each of these notions was enhanced by the fact that Yang earned his first major championship victory by accomplishing what no other player of this generation had before him. Trailing 14-time major winner Tiger Woods entering the final round, he not only came from behind to defeat him, he did so while going head-to-head with him in the last pairing. Prior to Yang's besting his opponent by 5 strokes to earn a 3-shot victory, Woods was 14-for-14 in his career when holding or sharing the 54-hole lead at a major.

And so it should come as no surprise that in a sport that has searched for a main rival to the game's No. 1 player for years -- only to be disillusioned by the relative dearth of exploits in comparison to Woods from the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia -- the following question will often be asked in the days and weeks following the results at Hazeltine: Will Y.E. Yang serve as the adversary we've been seeking for Tiger all these years?

In a word? No.

In nine previous starts at the same event in which Woods competed this season, Yang failed to defeat him on any occasion. Last year, in his first official season as a PGA Tour member, Yang didn't even qualify for a tournament that featured Tiger in the field, and later was relegated to Qualifying School just to keep his playing privileges.

In fact, if Yang's career is comparable to that of anyone else, it's hardly Tiger's, but Todd Hamilton's whose matches up best. Like Hamilton, Yang graduated from Q-school the year before his major win; like Hamilton, he won the Honda Classic earlier in the season; and like Hamilton, he held off a world-class player down the stretch to earn his momentous title. (In the case of the former, it was Ernie Els at the 2004 British Open.)

Yang's profile also bears a striking resemblance to those of the other three players who caught Woods from behind in a major before falling in playoffs. Bob May (2000 PGA Championship), Chris DiMarco (2005 Masters) and Rocco Mediate (2008 U.S. Open) were major-less underdogs when each battled Tiger, the only three to challenge his unprecedented mark -- a fact of which Yang was all too aware.

"I've seen throughout Tiger's career that a lot of players have folded probably on the last day when playing with him," he said. "So when I was at home or probably [at a] tournament, probably watching Tiger in the clubhouse, I'd usually try to visualize and try to bring up a mock strategy on how to win if I ever played against Tiger. But when the chance came, I sort of thought that, Hey, I could always play a good round of golf and Tiger could … always have a bad day. And I guess today was one of those days."

There are no fluky winners at major championships, no players who back into the winner's circle without earning their way. And yet, Yang will be considered the fourth major winner to usurp the main storyline this year, following Angel Cabrera's Masters win over Kenny Perry, Lucas Glover's taking the U.S. Open from Phil Mickelson and David Duval, and Stewart Cink's playoff victory to knock off 59-year-old Tom Watson in the British Open.

None of the quartet should be thought of as anything less than a deserving champion -- especially Yang, who triumphed over the game's top player in a way that had never occurred before.

Can he do it again someday? Well, Yang isn't counting on it. Asked after his victory if he would give Woods a rematch, the newest major champion responded, "Never again. I would like to stay as the guy who won over Tiger at the PGA Championship, and that's about it."

Jason Sobel | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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