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After Yang took down Tiger, major golf was never the same

A crestfallen Tiger Woods just couldn't get going during the final round of the 2009 PGA Championship. After missing a putt on the 13th hole, Woods and Y.E. Yang were all square with five holes to play. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

On the afternoon of Aug. 16, 2009, Tiger Woods stood on the first tee at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota, as the undisputed master of his universe. The final round of the PGA Championship set up for Woods much like his scorched-earth pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships.

It wasn't a matter of if he would prevail, but how he would prevail.

In his striped, red shirt, dark Nike cap and slacks, Woods cut no less an intimidating figure than that of an unbeaten Mike Tyson in his black trunks stalking Buster Douglas during introductions in the Tokyo Dome nearly two decades earlier. Woods was also an undefeated heavyweight (14-0 in majors when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead) and also facing an opponent defined by his zillion-to-1 odds.

But Yang Yong-eun, or Y.E. Yang, a 37-year-old journeyman out of South Korea, carried a 15th club in his bag for a PGA pairing out of his wildest dreams: He had beaten Woods at the 2006 HSBC Champions in Shanghai. Though Yang didn't play with Woods in the fourth round of that event, he had proven to everyone -- most notably himself -- that he could finish a 72-hole golf tournament in fewer strokes than the sum required by one of the two greatest players of all time.

And so what? Yang was ranked 460th in the world before his first victory on American soil -- at the Honda Classic -- in March 2009, and the PGA Championship five months later was not, you know, the Honda Classic. It was a major. Woods was only 14 months removed from winning one of those on one leg.

The surgery and rehab after his epic playoff victory over Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open did nothing to diminish his standing as an immovable force. So of all the things golf fans were thinking when the last Sunday twosome at Hazeltine prepared to tee off, this wasn't one of them:

Tiger Woods was about to get Buster Douglas'd.

"It's not like you're in an octagon where you're fighting against Tiger and he's going to bite you, or swing at you with his 9-iron. The worst that I could do was just lose to Tiger. So I really had nothing much at stake." Y.E. Yang

The day before, Woods seemed to sense the possibility of the staggering upset to come. He played ultraconservative, prevent golf, lag-putting his way to a 71 on the monstrous Hazeltine course while his 4-stroke lead was cut in half. Five groups ahead of him, ignored by everyone but the man he was playing with, Martin Kaymer, Yang shot an aggressive 67 that was the low round of the day.

The two-time defending champ, Padraig Harrington, joined Yang at 6-under, 2 shots behind Woods, and as a three-time major winner he appeared to be the most serious challenger on the board. But then again, the 33-year-old Woods didn't have any serious challengers. He'd won 47 of 50 events when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and he hadn't lost an outright lead after the third round since he was a 20-year-old rookie runner-up to Ed Fiori in 1996.

The tournament was effectively over. Yang had never before been grouped with Woods, and his résumé strongly suggested he didn't belong in the same ballpark with Tiger, never mind the same twosome.

Raised by his father to conquer an unconquerable game, Woods was a prodigy straight out of the crib and onto the set of "The Mike Douglas Show" as a 2-year-old golfer blowing away Bob Hope with his grownup swing. Yang? He didn't pick up a golf club until he was 19, and much like Francis Ouimet, the ex-caddie who defeated British royalty in the form of Harry Vardon at the 1913 U.S. Open, Yang had a working-class father who didn't think his son should be wasting his time on a game associated with the societal elite.

The son of a vegetable farmer on the island province of Jeju-do, Yang taught himself to play by using a baseball grip and hitting balls off range mats, and then by watching instructional videos featuring his idol, Jack Nicklaus, and Nick Faldo. Yang didn't break par for the first time until he was 22; Tiger Woods had won the Masters at 21.

Yang didn't let a torn ACL in his knee (suffered while working on a construction job) or a mandatory two-year stay in the South Korean military (guarding a naval port, among other things) or even a teenage goal of becoming a body builder and owning a gym stop him from pursuing a career in golf. At a powerfully built 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Yang muscled his way onto the Japan, Asian and European tours. He advanced through the PGA Tour's Q-School in 2007 and again in 2008. Before going to bed Saturday night, Aug. 15, 2009, Yang knew few believed he could become another Ouimet, or that he could assume the role of Jack Fleck to Woods' Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open.

Harrington bogeyed the 18th that Saturday to land Yang in the last group with Woods, and the South Korean didn't learn of that development until he caught the third-round highlights later on. "My heart nearly pounded and exploded," he would say through an interpreter at his news conference after his victory, "being so nervous, actually." Yang tried and failed to get a good night's sleep. One way or another, he knew he was waking up to the first day of the rest of his life.

Sunday morning, word got to Yang's caddie, A.J. Montecinos, that his man appeared overly nervous. The caddie sidled up to his player on the practice green and told him, "It's just you and me. Don't worry. We're just going to play golf, OK?"

The 35-year-old Montecinos was the ideal co-pilot for the turbulent, four-hour flight. He was, like Yang, a self-made man relatively new to the PGA Tour. As a kid, Montecinos worked in a grocery store and handed over his paychecks to his parents, who sometimes needed the cash to cover the water bill and rent. He lucked into a golf scholarship at Jackson State, where he helped Walter Payton's brother, Eddie, and his racially diverse 1996 team become the first from a historically black college or university to reach the NCAA regionals.

Montecinos fielded a call one day in his San Antonio home from a caddie named Hoss Uresti, brother of tour pro Omar Uresti, and Hoss told A.J. to get himself to the second stage of Q-School in 2008, not far from his parents' California home, to caddie for Y.E. Yang.

"Who the heck is Y.E. Yang?" Montecinos asked him.

"You have to understand that playing Tiger Woods in a major in his prime was like every station on the radio playing in your ears all at once. It's that kind of chaotic." A.J. Montecinos, Yang's caddie

"Don't ask me any questions," Hoss responded. "Just do it."

Montecinos did it. Yang survived that second stage, sent Montecinos on his way in favor of his regular caddie, but then summoned him back the following year for another Q-School adventure. In the finals, on the last hole, Yang faced an 11-footer for bogey that would give him a score of 19 under and, perhaps, secure possession of his PGA Tour card. "Eighteen OK?" Yang asked in his limited English, thinking a double-bogey might still win him his card.

"No, Yang," A.J. said. "Make [it]."

Yang drained the putt, and later learned that 18 under wouldn't have been good enough for his card, or good enough for the opportunity to win the Honda Classic, or good enough for the opportunity to join Woods on the first tee of the final round of the PGA Championship. Yang took Montecinos along for the ride this time. He would pay off the $10,000 Montecinos owed on his Mitsubishi Galant with his Honda winnings, and he'd affectionately refer to his caddie as "Mr. Bean" for his resemblance to British comedian Rowan Atkinson.

They were partners, happy ones, and almost immediately the rookie caddie exhibited a cool and reassuring hand. Montecinos had been playing for money since he was 12, 13 years old, beating gullible adults on the kind of bets a young Lee Trevino used to make -- $10 bets with $5 in his pocket. So Montecinos understood pressure, just as he understood the need to focus on the virtues of a winning effort rather than on the consequences of defeat.

Walter Payton, one of Montecinos' childhood heroes, taught him as much after a bad Montecinos round knocked Jackson State and Eddie Payton out of the NCAAs. Montecinos was preparing to caddie for the Paytons in a pro-am when the former Chicago Bears great turned to the Chicago-born Montecinos and said, "It was you that f---ed up, wasn't it?" Montecinos apologized for letting the Paytons down.

"And then Walter grabbed me like my mom would grab me, by the scruff of my neck, and pulled me close," Montecinos recalled. "He hugged me, let me go, and then looked me in the eye and said, 'Did you give your best?' I told him I did, and he pulled me in again, close enough to kiss me, and held on to me and said, 'A.J., that's all that matters.'"

Montecinos kept that cool into the furnace of a bright-lights matchup with Woods and his raging bull of a caddie, Steve Williams. Meanwhile, Yang was striking the ball cleanly enough in the days leading up to the PGA to inspire his coach, Brian Mogg, to tell Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee that Chamblee shouldn't be surprised if Yang won. In fact, even after Yang made like a 22-handicapper and topped his ball some 40 yards into a creek at the 16th in a Wednesday practice round, the coach didn't blink.

"We just looked at each other and laughed," Mogg recalled. "There was just a great feeling around Y.E. that week, and A.J. was a perfect caddie for him. He created an awesome mood and attitude and never let anything get bigger than it was."

Wearing white from head to toe -- white shirt, white pants, white visor -- Yang shook hands with Woods and suddenly felt his pounding heartbeat settle into a stress-free pace. "I became myself," he would say. Though Yang had counted up his tour victories (1) and Tiger's (70) at the time and figured that made him a 70-1 underdog, he realized something that had escaped superior players who often rolled over on Woods' command.

"It's not like you're in an octagon where you're fighting against Tiger and he's going to bite you," Yang said, "or swing at you with his 9-iron. The worst that I could do was just lose to Tiger. So I really had nothing much at stake."

At 2:45 p.m. ET, Woods made his first drive a good one, twirled his club, and marched down the fairway in anticipation of another memorable Sunday. But despite the fact he was performing before the kind of crowds and inside-the-ropes media mob he'd never seen, Yang was actually the steadier player early in the round, birdieing the 633-yard third before Woods bogeyed the fourth and fell into a tie.

If his failure to create separation emboldened his opponent, Woods did make it clear on the front nine that he wasn't interested in helping Yang get any more comfortable than he already was.

"Tiger and Stevie were all business," Montecinos recalled. "They didn't speak to us. ... I didn't say a word to those guys until Tiger and I were walking down the fifth fairway. You have to understand that playing Tiger Woods in a major in his prime was like every station on the radio playing in your ears all at once. It's that kind of chaotic.

"So I looked over at Tiger and said, 'Man, you do this kind of s--- every week?' And he looked at me and said, 'Yeah, you see why I don't play much?' I said, 'I don't blame you,' and that was the extent of our conversation."

At the par-3 eighth, Woods lost the advantage he gained on Yang's bogey three holes earlier by missing the green and failing to save par out of the sand. Woods would blow another 1-stroke lead at No. 12 on a wayward 10-foot putt and then watch the tournament start to slip from his indomitable grip on the 13th.

Yang pulled his tee shot into a bunker. "And then Tiger hit a 3-iron into the wind," Montecinos recalled. "I've never seen a ball fly like this. To watch this dude hit balls, he's just the best in the world. It was unbelievable. When he hit that shot, my mouth dropped. It ended up 8 feet from the hole."

It looked like a bogey-birdie swing would restore order and deliver Woods his 15th major title, at least until Yang poured in his 12-footer for par and applied some pressure to the ultimate pressure-proof opponent, Tiger, who blinked from shorter range. It was all tied with five holes to go, and this was the point, Yang recalled, "I knew that it was possible for me to win. I hit well on the 14th because of that, as well."

Yes, Yang would hit well on the 14th. Watching from his Florida home, Yang's coach, Mogg, was agonizing over his decision not to book a return trip to Hazeltine that morning. Mogg had worked wonders with Yang's amateur-hour grip and swing, and he'd seen firsthand how everything was coming together in the practice rounds as well as his earlier prediction coming to fruition. And now Mogg was watching his guy take the fight to Woods in a stunning way.

"Tiger had that shocked look on him, too," Mogg said. "He had that aura of invincibility back then, but the longer Y.E. stayed with him, the harder it got on Tiger."

Before the coach had left that Wednesday practice round, he told Yang he thought PGA officials would move up the tees on Sunday on the short par-4 14th and that he should hit another ball from that area. Yang sailed his second drive over the green.

"That's why Y.E. didn't kill his drive on Sunday," Mogg said, "like he did on Wednesday."

Yang hit a good drive that stopped on an upslope just short of the green; Woods sent his tee ball into the adjacent bunker and then blasted out to 7 feet. On CBS, as Yang surveyed his second shot, Verne Lundquist mentioned that Woods had his back to his opponent as if he planned to avoid watching. Yang used his 52-degree wedge on the chip, and Lundquist noticed that Woods turned and gave the rolling ball what the announcer called "a cursory glance."

More than a cursory glance was required. The ball dropped for an eagle, and Lundquist shouted, "It's wonderful!" as Yang screamed and pumped his arms and even threw a Tiger-like right uppercut. "Verne," cried Faldo, Lundquist's broadcast partner, "it's always you."

Lundquist was there for Nicklaus' putt on the 17th at the 1986 Masters ("Yes sir!"), and for Woods' absurd chip-in on the 16th at the 2005 Masters ("In your life, have you seen anything like that!"). Seizing the moment as Yang celebrated, Faldo said, "In your life, Verne, you've seen another one. How did that happen?"

"Talk about inexplicable," Lundquist responded. "Y.E. Yang, with one victory on the PGA Tour to the 70 accomplished by Tiger Woods, and he has taken the lead."

Woods answered like the proud champion he was, sinking the birdie putt.

"But he is still 1 back," Lundquist said. "He being Tiger Woods. The leader at the 15th tee is 37-year-old Yong-eun Yang, born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, with an eagle at the 14th. What terrific stuff."

On the 15th, after Woods chunked a fairway wood, Yang turned to Montecinos and said, "Tiger [seems] nervous," Montecinos recalled. The caddie responded, "You bet your butt he is."

If Woods had tried to use gamesmanship on the relative novice, it didn't work. Some observers thought Woods had crowded Yang and tried to unnerve him at different points in the round. "I wasn't rattled at all," Yang would say. "As a matter of fact, I didn't even know that he was near me."

Montecinos didn't notice any encroachment, either, but he did see Yang stick up for himself on the sixth tee when a rules official told him his group needed to speed up after taking forever to play No. 5. Yang immediately pointed at Woods and said, "Not me, him."

The caddie also thought Woods slowed down the pace late in the day, especially before his tee shot on the par-3 17th hole. When Woods finally took his cut, his ball looked so picture-perfect in the air that Montecinos expected it to drop into the cup on the fly.

"I couldn't ask for a better golf swing," Woods said.

He caught a downwind gust and the ball landed long, matching Yang's bogey. Woods later found himself on the right side of the 18th fairway trying to figure out a way to force a playoff and avoid a repeat of his 2002 loss to Rich Beem on this very course. On the other side, in the first cut of rough, Yang was standing over a 210-yard shot that needed to clear a towering tree and a large bunker to reach the pin in the back left corner of the green.

As soon as Yang assured Montecinos he wouldn't catch a flyer, they agreed on his 3-hybrid. Mogg had reminded the caddie before the tournament that Yang had been hitting his hybrids dead at the flags, and sure enough, the 110th-ranked player on the planet launched the damnedest shot of his career into the blue sky, over that tree and bunker and directly on line with the stick. The ball bounced just past the right side of the cup and stopped a dozen feet from pay dirt.

Yang high-fived Montecinos as the fans gave him a standing ovation, and before Woods played his approach shot, Yang looked into the CBS camera and smiled. Now officially desperate, Woods missed the green left and then lowered his head as he trudged toward his near-certain demise.

This was beyond crazy. Yang had bogeyed four of his first five holes in Friday's second round and appeared in danger of missing the cut, and here he was about to live out a fantasy. He wanted to be certain first; he'd seen Woods make miraculous recoveries before. As Tiger lined up his must-have chip, Yang conceded, "I was praying it wouldn't go in."

Prayers answered. Montecinos couldn't believe what he was seeing or feeling. On the eve of this duel, the caddie's final phone conversation was with a friend of his in San Antonio, NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin. The Iceman told the caddie he would need ice water in his veins for this one.

"A.J., just put your blinders on and do your job," Gervin told him. "The crowd and everything else is a mirage. Just do your job."

Yang finished off his 2-under 70 with one last make, one last fist pump and high-five for Montecinos. Under his Nike cap, a gutted Woods hung his head while wearing something of a sheepish grin. The Mariano Rivera of golf closers finished with a 75 and a 3-stroke defeat. The second South Korean man to win on the PGA Tour (K.J. Choi was the first) had become the first Asian man to win one of golf's four biggest tournaments.

"I always imagined myself playing in America and winning a major," Yang recalled, "but never really knew that it would come true. I was very happy that I picked up golf."

Happy enough to act like a silly boy and become that aspiring body builder all over again. The PGA of America's publicist, Julius Mason, noted that Yang was the first winner anywhere to clean and snatch his bag over his head.

"It was a stunning sight," said Bob Denney, the PGA of America's historian, who recalled that Woods had "appeared the timid one" throughout the round. Denney later saw Yang and his wife locking arms in the clubhouse and sipping the winner's' champagne from glasses "as if they had done it many times."

One clubhouse attendant who was near a locker room TV down the stretch told Montecinos, "You have no idea how many players were down here cheering Yang on, guys jumping up and down on the couch just to see Tiger finally get beat."

In the end, Woods was gracious in defeat. He chastised himself over a dreadful day of putting but credited Yang for playing "beautifully" and congratulated Montecinos on a job well done. Woods pledged to give himself plenty of chances in future majors and left the premises with millions of golf fans believing he'd soon be breathing down Nicklaus' neck.

Yang wasn't only a hero to the countrymen who woke up before dawn to watch him take on Woods, he'd become a global celebrity overnight -- a likable, photogenic star who had toppled a one-man dynasty. When he was done out-Tigering Tiger, Yang said, "You never know in life. This might be my last win as a golfer."

He did win in China and Korea the following year, and he did finish eighth at the Masters and third at the 2011 U.S. Open. But in 2014, the final season of his exemption, Yang missed 15 of 28 PGA Tour cuts, did a free fall in the rankings and ended up in the Web.com Championship in a failed bid to keep his card.

He broke up his Hazeltine dream team along the way. Mogg survived into the 2011 season, but Montecinos said he was fired early in 2010, mere months after the breakthrough victory over Woods. The caddie was told by Yang's IMG agent at the time, Ryan Park, that the player needed a break. Montecinos was hurt by the way it went down, and he wrote a letter expressing his feelings to Yang that was met with no response.

In the immediate wake of the firing, Yang told Golfweek that "some chemistry issues" were behind it. Asked to elaborate last week in an email Q&A with ESPN.com through his IMG agent and interpreter, Hyun Soo Kong, Yang said, "I just simply wanted a more veteran caddie by my side."

Now Montecinos is busy selling his clothing line under the label GIIC (God Is In Control) and donating some proceeds to San Antonio's homeless and to the local First Tee program. He is also caddying for Kevin Streelman, whom he helped at last year's Travelers Championship become the first player in tour history to birdie his last seven holes to win.

In his spare time, Montecinos actually roots for Tiger Woods to end his seven-year-plus drought in the majors. "He's the reason we play for the money we play for," the caddie said. "I hope he wins again. I think over time he'll figure it out."

Woods has had a lot of time to figure out a lot of things. More than three months after losing to Yang at Hazeltine and seven weeks after routing him in a singles rematch at the Presidents Cup, Woods crashed his Cadillac SUV into a fire hydrant outside his Windermere, Florida, home. Life would never be the same.

The sex scandal. The divorce. The injuries. The two winless seasons after a five-win 2013. Woods returns to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits this week as a shell of his terminating self.

Even if he wins another big one, he'll do so as an underdog who suddenly morphed into Old Tiger without explanation and not as the dominator who stepped onto the first tee box with Y.E. Yang on Aug. 16, 2009, thinking he might win 25 majors before he was through.

Why hasn't Woods held another 54-hole lead in a major since Hazeltine? Why hasn't he been the same big-game player since losing to the ultimate long shot who dared to stand up to him?

Those questions are best answered by Y.E. Yang himself.

"I, amongst many other players, believe that it has to do with his personal issues and that it is none of our business," Yang said. "Tiger is not a machine and is a person like all of us. I think once he gets his focus back, he will be fine."