Yang outplays Tiger

Published : Aug 22, 2009 00:00 IST

The South Korean overhauled a two-shot lead of world No. 1 Tiger Woods. By Lawrence Donegan.

The final day of the 2009 US PGA Championship at Hazeltine provided the epic battle everyone had predicted and a challenger to Tiger Woods that no one could have foreseen.

The 37-year-old Korean YE Yang, whose claim to fame was that he once beat Tiger Woods down the stretch at a tournament in China, repeated the feat again to secure a famous victory over golf’s History Man and become the first Asian male to win one of golf’s major championships. The final margin was three shots but the significance was far greater than that.

The world No. 1 had never lost a major in which he had been leading going into the final day, winning 15 out of 15. This time he didn’t just lose, he was outplayed, outfought and, in the end, made to look ordinary. The final hole encapsulated the day. Yang stepped on to the tee with a one-shot advantage and stripped his drive, followed with a stunning hybrid shot to 10 feet and rolled in the putt for birdie. Woods finished with a bogey.

“I played well enough to win the championship, but I didn’t putt well enough to win the championship,” Woods said afterwards. “It was a bad day at the wrong time. That’s the way it goes.”

The statistics certainly supported this analysis – Woods took 33 putts, more than in any of the three previous rounds – but they could not be taken in isolation. History was on the line, as was Woods’s unrelenting pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. This was supposed to be a procession, but it turned into battle royal, made all the more compelling because of Yang’s stunning play.

Where the American was timid, the Korean was bold. Where the great man hesitated, the underdog was unflinching. Even when Woods found himself, as he did when making birdie on the short par-four 14th, his opponent went one better, chipping in for eagle from off the green.

“I tried to keep my emotions under control on the course, but I will have a crazy party tonight,” the winner said afterwards. No one would deny him the festivities.

After all, Padraig Harrington had been cast in the role of Tiger slayer. Maybe he will do exactly that one day, but not before he rids himself of a disconcerting habit of running up horrendous eights just when things are getting interesting. As he did the previous week at Firestone, the Irishman imploded just as he was on the cusp of something special, running up a quintuple-bogey eight on the par-three eighth hole after hitting a six-iron tee shot into the pond to the right of the green.

That was bad enough, but he then hit two wedge shots worthy of an 18-handicapper not a three-time major champion – the first forcing his playing partner, Henrik Stenson, to duck lest he find himself with the word Titleist imprinted on his forehead, and the second ending up in the water again. Another chip, followed by two putts, and the Irishman stumbled off in the direction of the next tee.

With one of the leaders gone and the others struggling to make pars on a course getting more difficult by the minute, those who had started the day with their eyes on a top-five finish, the likes of Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, were suddenly imbued with loftier ambitions. The Englishman had started his round an hour ahead of Woods and seven shots behind but took encouragement from an early birdie, the rising wind and leader-board relaying the troubles of those behind. Like everyone else out on the course, he was made to suffer but the pain of bogeys at the sixth and the 12th holes was salved by birdies at the seventh, 11th and 14th.

That took him to three under par, not exactly looming large in the leaders’ rear view mirror but not a distant speck either. A couple of birdies on the last four holes and he would have presented the leader with a serious challenge. Alas, he could manage only four pars. McIlroy was another who caught a fleeting glimpse of the promised land before it faded away.

The Irishman began his day with a double bogey at the first before reeling off four birdies in seven holes from the third. Like so many others, he dropped a shot at the difficult 12th, a par four that had been stretched to 515 yards, and that proved to be a setback from which he could not recover.

By the time both reached the clubhouse at three under, Yang had drained his chip on the 14th to move to eight under, with Woods a shot behind. It was now, officially, a two-man contest.

“I’m delighted. I’ve come back from what could have been a slight disappointment at the Open, not winning there, and I’ve finished in the top five,” Westwood said. “It’s just forward progress all the time and I can’t wait for next April.”

McIlroy was equally delighted: “Coming into the week I didn’t have my best game with me so to finish top five is a great result.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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