Yang’s incredible journey
Everything but golf, considered a sport of the elite, with green fees costing several hundred dollars a round.
So it wasn’t until he was 19 that Yang, the son of vegetable farmers, picked up an iron at the country club where he took a low-paying job scooping up golf balls. Practicing late into the night after patrons had gone, he soon became good enough to turn pro.
His father was not impressed.
“Golf is for rich people. Why are you trying to become a golfer? Please don’t do it,” Yang Han-joon recalled begging his son, the fourth of eight children.
Funny how things turn out.
The 37-year-old Yang, who was in PGA Tour qualifying school nine months ago, became the first Asian-born man to capture a major title with a series of spectacular shots on the back nine of Hazeltine.
Even more memorable was the guy he beat to win the PGA tournament—Tiger Woods. It was the first time golf’s No. 1 player lost a major while atop the leaderboard going into the final round.
Just like that, a player ranked No. 110 in the world became the pride of a golf-crazy nation, as well as the toast of a continent.
“Congratulations to Yang Yong-eun for being the first Asian to win the PGA!” read hastily made banners hanging at the Ora Country Club, on the resort island of Jeju, where Yang’s family lives.
The island, famous for its waterfalls, volcanoes, seafood and sunshine, is a popular honeymoon spot and in recent years has become a luxury golf destination.
Yang’s father admits trying to pressure his son to join him in the fields.
“I had no idea what golf was —that’s why I was opposed to golf,” he told The Associated Press during an interview interrupted every few minutes by calls from well-wishers.
But Yang’s mother, Ko Hee-soon, said Yang was always determined to leave their tough life behind.
“When we urged him to go into farming, he would say: ’I’m not going to live like my father,”’ she recalled, beaming. Ko said they would throw a party to celebrate his victory, which came shortly after sunrise Monday from half a world away in Chaska, Minn.
Yang, now married with three sons, has earned more than $3.2 million on the tour, including $1.35 million for the PGA Championship.
His older brother, Yang Yong-hyuk, was up all night watching Yang on TV.
“I am so happy and proud of him. What else can I feel?” he told the AP. “Since he has finally reached the peak, I hope that he will work even harder to become better and defend his position.”
Golf coach Kim Won-jun, 43, said Yang’s nerves of steel set him apart from other players.
“I personally know Yang, and what distinguishes him from other players is his emotional stability,” he said. “He is in total control during his game, so when he has the chance, he’s able to immediately seize it.”
Unlike other players, Yang is not intimidated by Woods, said Shane Hahm, who covers sports for Seoul radio station TBS eFM.
“Yang is not fazed by all the media and ... the size of the gallery that follows Tiger—that’s really what gets into other players’ heads,” he said.
It still comes down to what he did and how he did it, Hahm said.
“For the first Asian-born player to win, it’s pretty historically significant,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable the way he did it, too, by beating the No. 1 player in the world.”
The Korea Professional Golfers’ Association even joked that Yang deserves a new moniker: “Tiger Killer.”
And though Woods, whose mother is Thai, is celebrated across Asia, the region now has a homegrown men’s champion in addition to Fiji’s Vijay Singh.
“It’s a great, great day for Asian golf,” Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han said.
Max Garske, chief executive of the PGA of Australia, said Yang’s win will help nurture the sport in the region.
“We need a couple of Asian heroes,” he said.
Garske said Japan, with 17-year-old star Ryo Ishikawa, has some 15 million golfers and South Korea 3 million to 3.5 million.
There are about 3,500 golf courses in Japan, where an 18-hole round can cost up to $500 to play, and just 200 quality courses in South Korea.
Garske said the biggest room for growth is in China, with some 1.1 million duffers with golf memberships and more than 350 courses.
Since Se Ri Park captured the LPGA title and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, South Korea has undergone a golfing renaissance, with sleek new resorts sprouting up across the nation and golfers packing indoor “screen golf” virtual driving ranges for quick fixes.
South Korean women now dominate the LPGA Tour, with eight players together winning a combined 11 majors. But the men have been slower to succeed: Yang and K.J. Choi are the only PGA Tour players who learned the game in South Korea before heading for the United States.
Across South Korea, golf fans set their alarms for 4 a.m. to watch the final round live on TV and, of course, root for Yang, known as “Son of the Wind” for his consistency, even on windy days.
South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, also woke up before dawn to see Yang play and later phoned to congratulate the champion.
“I woke up at dawn today to watch the broadcast, and you played in a calm manner,” Lee told Yang, according to Lee’s office. “First of all, you enhanced our people’s morale by winning the major title for the first time as an Asian.”
Lee also praised Yang for persevering despite personal difficulties, calling his win all the more valuable because of his life story, Lee’s office said.
Yang, whose full name is Yang Yong-eun, calls himself an “average Joe” who once aspired to be a bodybuilder and dreamed of owning his own gym. A knee injury forced him to reconsider that career, and that’s when he took the job at the golf resort.
Yang agreed to pick up balls at the country club as a “trainee” in exchange for off-hours access to the driving range and a small monthly wage, officials said.
Yang is legendary for arriving as early as 5 a.m. to practice before the range opened and returning to hit more balls after closing time, stringing up his own lights after dark.
“After the guests left the driving range, he practiced late into the night,” recalled Kim Young-chan, executive director of the driving range.
Kim said Yang stood out back then, but he never expected him to beat Woods. He said the PGA final left him “speechless.”
Han Jae-young, a current trainee, said Yang is said to have taught himself the finer points of the sport by watching other golfers at the club.
“He became a legend for trainees like me,” he said, giving young players the motivation to keep practicing on their own.
After a few years, and having played only about 100 rounds of golf, Yang left for compulsory military service. When he was done, Yang went to New Zealand to play golf intensively for three months. In 1996, he turned pro — only five years after he first picked up a club.