One was Tiger Woods. Another was Yang Yong-eun. The first had been the god of golf for more than a decade. The other had met the game at age 19, turned professional at age 24, and counted seven professional championships to his name. Tiger Woods had rocked the golf world with the most unpredictable of US Open victories in 2008, while Y.E. Yang (as he was known) had found a way to squeeze a one-stroke victory at the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic in the spring of 2009 from the hands of the very-unheralded John Rollins. Yang, though, built the massive speed bump on the highway to glory of Tiger Woods on the 17th day of August, 2009, the speed bump that continues to block Woods to this day.
Tiger Woods was built to win major championships. The tales of his upbringing are legend, the chase of Jack Nicklaus’ grand-slam events record, well-known. He had limped, nearly crawled, to the greatest finish ever at the 2008 US Open championship. While he had not suffered a near-death car accident, as was the case with Ben Hogan nearly 60 years prior, the case could be made that he was in worse shape at the end of his come-from-in-front victory at Torrey Pines. He had played 90 holes, as had Hogan, but Woods had to go to a 91st to win. He defeated Rocco Mediate, who joined the list with Bob May, Woody Austin and Chris DiMarco, all game competitors who had just a bit less than needed to snatch a major championship from Woods.
Y.E. Yang had limped around after tearing his ACL in his early twenties. He planned to be a body builder, or a construction worker, never a golfer. He played the game for fun and went into the South Korean military for two years after his knee had healed. When he finished his duty, he took up golf with earnest, moving to New Zealand. Less than three years later, he was a full-fledged professional golfer, but eight years would pass before Yang earned his first Japan PGA Tour victory. By that time, Tiger Woods had collected ten major championships and nearly fifty PGA Tour titles.
Their battleground that day was Hazeltine National golf club, a course that had fought back from its own torn ACL. In 1970, Tony Jacklin won the US Open on the Minnesota course’s maiden major championship voyage. American Dave Hill, the runner-up, spilled an oil drum of vitriol onto the golf course, referencing corn, plows, tractors and farmland in his very public and very acerbic desecration of the layout. Hazeltine retreated from the men’s majors spotlight, hosting the Women’s Open in 1977 and the Senior Men’s in 1983. Finally, in 1991, the men returned to the Chaska golf club, where Payne Stewart won his first of two national championships. It had been twenty-one years since Hill’s outburst, the longest ACL recovery on record. Something was brewing at Hazeltine, though, and it involved Tiger Woods and Rich Beem, the only name not on the Austin-DiMarco-May-Mediate list.
Beem, you see, had done what the other four had not. He found a way to defeat Woods at a major championship and he had done it some seven years earlier, in the same PGA Championship, over the same Hazeltine course. Beem had partnered third-round leader Justin Leonard in Sunday’s final pairing, who entered the last 18 with a five-stroke advantage over the Norse god from Valhalla. Leonard exited the spotlight with a forgettable 77, opening the door for Woods to claim another major title. No one expected Beem, of all golfers, to hold Woods back, just as no one expected Sham to hold off Secretariat at the 1973 Kentucky Derby. The horse hadn’t and neither would any golfer, they said. Beem hadn’t listened and he gave just one stroke back to Woods that day. In truth, Woods made it look that much closer by ending his final four holes in four-under par. Woods’ supporters called it a triumph of sorts, as the superstar wasn’t really in the mix until he plowed the road with birdies. It was inevitable that someone would win a major with Woods in the field, they said, and Beem was that lucky fellow.
The Woods camp had coined the “Hello, World” phrase in 1996 with a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, when Tiger turned professional at the precocious age of 20. Accompanying the phenomenon was his teaching professional, Butch Harmon. Harmon had worked with Woods since 1993 and would continue to do so through 2004. Under Harmon’s tutelage, Woods would tame the wild and wondrous swing and game that captured consecutive US Amateur championships from 1994 through 1996. Tripp Kuehne, Buddy Marucci and Steve Scott were the runners-up those years, precursors to”the list.” Under Harmon, Woods won the 1997 Masters and 2000 US Open in a record-obliterating manner. It was time alone that stood in the way of his conquest. There were no dents, no gaps, no breaches in the armor worn by Sir Eldrick of Cypress.
2009 was different. Woods entered the fourth round with the lead. He had never given a 54-hole lead away in a professional major championship. Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Padraig Harrington and Lucas Glover were all worthy challengers, with a few majors between them, but none would catch Woods. And Yang? He would sail away on the winds like a kite, just as Leonard had done, seven years before. When the upstart birdied the third and Woods bogeyed the fourth to cause a tie, it was as thought the anonymous “writhing pitcher” in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey At The Bat” had somehow managed to throw strike one. “That ain’t my style” didn’t escape Woods’ lips, but most considered it after Yang immediately bogeyed number six to fall a stroke behind.
Woods would give one back at the 8th, regain it at the 11th, then fritter it away again at the 12th, all the while playing cat-and-mouse as Yang made par after relentless par. Then came the glorious 14th, the short par four that changed the shape of the tracks. Woods marked down a three for his second birdie of the day, yet he walked to the 15th tee a shot behind Yang. The chaser had become the pursued with a Richter-scale hole-out from 75 feet for eagle on the par four. Stunned by the unexpected body shot, Woods bogeyed his final two holes and watched as the ebullient Yang birdied the final hole to clinch a three-stroke victory and mute the legions of Woods believers.
The golf club industry, specifically those who careers hinged on the success of hybrid clubs, revere Yang as their own sort of deity. Alone yet surrounded in the final fairway, the would-be champion lofted a 3-hybrid into the air, over a tree, beyond a sandy maw, onto the green, close to birdie and history. As some at the time indicated, it was shocking to view Tiger Woods on the final green of a major championship he had recently led, with a putt for nothing. Yet it was that exquisite stroke four holes earlier, the one that wrested the lead from the hands of a colossus, that set in motion the unfamiliar denouement.
In 2004, believing that he had done Harmon to death, Woods announced that he would no longer work with the Nevada-based teaching professional. He changed allegiance to a Texan, Hank Haney. Haney had worked with Woods’ adopted big brother, Mark O’Meara. It was Mark-O who had showed Woods the professional ropes when the young Californian came out on tour. They lived near each other in Florida, played countless practice rounds together and developed a genuine affection for each other. For the first time, Woods’ ego came into question, as pundits and aficionados together hollered about the switch of teachers. Haney would guide Woods to six more major titles and buckets of other, professional wins.
During Haney’s tenure, Woods’ body began to break down. His knees came under the most scrutiny, culminating in the retreat from golf to rehabilitate the ACL tear and stress fracture suffered prior to the heralded 2008 US Open. In November of 2009, Woods’ personal life came apart when he was allegedly found to have been unfaithful to his wife. In 2010, just as with Harmon, Tiger Woods announced that he was done with Haney and would take charge of his own swing. Soon, though, he was aligned with Sean Foley, a Canadian-turned-Floridian teaching pro with a unique spin on life and the physical game of golf. Woods worked with Foley through more tour victories, more physical decay and zero major championships.
Would Tiger Woods’ life have been any different had he defeated Y.E. Yang and claimed his 15th major title at the 2009 PGA Championships? The odds are not in his favor. His alleged infidelities would dobtless have come to light and his inhuman work-out regimen, both lifting weights and practicing golf, would have taken its toll on his musculature. As Woods battles back in 2015 from back injuries and surgery, along with a failed 2014 campaign, the majority of questions will focus not on his physical game, but on his emotional ability to conquer as he once did. And that inability to mentally overpower his opponents and himself can be traced to a short par four, on a golf course in middle America, a mere six years in the past.