My Sportsman: Y.E. Yang
Yang is the first Asian male to win a major championship in golf
We may look back at Yang's PGA win as a watershed moment in golf
Yang's comeback in the final round inspired an entire continent
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer..
Son of the Wind sounds like a more impressive moniker than Son of the Vegetable Farmers, which also describes Yang, the fourth of eight children who was determined to find a different line of work than his father.
At 19, the Son of the Wind began picking up range balls at a local country club in exchange for a modest salary and the chance to hit balls early in the morning before the range opened and late night after the golfers left. He even had his own string of lights for that purpose. He soon turned pro, against the wishes of his father, who argued, "Golf is for rich people." The road was long, but you already know the important part. At 37, playing on the PGA Tour after surviving its qualifying school just nine months earlier, Yang became the first Asian-born male major champion. He is the toast of a continent.
That alone makes him worthy of SI's Sportsman of the Year honor, but he won the PGA by coming from behind in the last round to beat Earth's most formidable golfer, Tiger Woods. It was one-on-one, man-to-man combat. They played in Sunday's final pairing at Hazeltine and Tiger the Great had never lost a major when he had the 54-hole lead. That's pretty much the formula you follow to win 14 majors. When the pressure was at its thickest on the 72nd hole and it appeared that Woods might still get No. 15, Yang pulled off his most important shot, hitting a hybrid club over a tree and onto the green, where he sank the clinching birdie putt. He outplayed the game's best and stared him down. It was like upsetting the Beatles in a Battle of the Bands.
Perhaps because of the language barrier, Yang's major championship has been underappreciated and undervalued in the U.S. Americans don't realize just how big this victory was in Korea, where Yang is now a superstar. He received a congratulatory phone call from South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak. Yang was also overshadowed by the British Open a few weeks earlier, where Tom Watson's near-miss at age 59 in a playoff was the golf story of the year.
But consider this. When Korea's Se Ri Pak won the '98 U.S. Women's Open, she was one of only three Koreans playing on the LPGA. Eleven years later, 47 Koreans play on the tour and since 2004, Korean women have won seven major championships -- by seven different Korean women. If they're not the dominant force in women's golf, they're damn close. Pak inspired a country with her win and in her wake, heralded a new era in women's golf.
By taking down Tiger, Yang inspired an entire continent. Check your globe. Asia is one big-ass continent. To borrow a line from the old Steve Allen song, This could be the start of something big. Golf is expanding, the globe is shrinking. It's a smaller world than it once was and Yang epitomizes the melting pot of cultures that the world is becoming, an Asian hero who is also a hero in America, not to mention a worldwide celebrity.
Ten years after, we may look back at Yang's PGA win as a watershed moment, just like Pak's. He permanently raised the bar for Asian golfers. One thing we won't say about Yang is that he was a one-hit wonder. In 2006, Yang played a stellar final round and won the HSBC Champions event in China. The runner-up who got outplayed in that one? His name was Tiger Woods.
Make a note: The Son of the Wind doesn't blow.
GALLERY: Best of the PGA Championship