Tuesday, November 30th, 1999
CHASKA, Minn. – For years, Asian countries could only boast about growth and potential in men’s golf. Success was measured by a half-dozen players who had cracked the top 50 in the world rankings over the last decade.
It took Y.E. Yang and his stunning victory over Tiger Woods to make them a major part of the conversation.
“We’ve been waiting for quite a number of years for this,” said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the hallowed Royal & Ancient Golf Club in Scotland. “Perhaps the PGA Championship was not the one we were expecting. But it’s great for golf. It’s great for Korea. It’s great for Asia. And it’s very timely for getting back into the Olympics.
“It’s a fantastic day for golf.”
Until the 2009 PGA Championship, players from every continent except Asia and Antarctica had captured a major championship over the last three years as “global golf” became a buzz term.
That changed Sunday at Hazeltine when Yang, a 37-year-old South Korean, delivered a shot felt across oceans. Leading by one shot against the world’s No. 1 player on the 18th hole, he struck a 3-iron hybrid from 210 yards around a tree, barely over a bunker and onto the green about 12 feet from the cup.
In the immediate aftermath, the magnitude of his victory was slow to sink in.
“You never know in life,” Yang said. “This might be my last win as a golfer. But it sure is a great day.”
The ramifications for South Korea, not to mention all of Asia, may take years to unfold. When Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 shots, many believed it would be a watershed moment for minorities on the PGA Tour. A dozen years later, he remains the tour’s only player of black heritage.
The Asian community was desperate for its own champion.
“Growth happens two ways – either stars at the top pulling it up, or grass-roots programs pushing it up,” Dawson said. “What Asian countries lacked is enough stars on the international stages. Let’s hope it’s the first of many, and not a one-off. It’s not just Korea, but Japan, India, China, Thailand. They will remember Yang. He’ll be a household name in Asia.”
Top golf executives have had their eyes on Asia the past several years.
The R&A and Augusta National earlier this year created the Asia Amateur tournament, to be played this fall in China and limited to Asian players, with the winner getting a ticket to the Masters. And the PGA Tour recently joined other tours to turn the HSBC Champions in China – where Yang defeated Woods three years ago – into a World Golf Championship.
Along the way, Asian-born golfers have made inroads.
Jeev Milkha Singh became the first player from India to win on the European Tour and compete in the Masters. Ryo Ishikawa of Japan was 15 when he became the youngest winner on a recognized tour. Prayad Marksaeng of Thailand, who built his first golf club from a bamboo stick and scraps of bicycle tire, contended early at two World Golf Championships this year.
K.J. Choi of South Korea has seven PGA Tour victories, the most of any Asian, and last year climbed as high as No. 5 in the world.
Even so, Asian success in the majors had been relegated to close calls.
There was Liang-Huan Lu of Taiwan finishing one shot behind Lee Trevino at Royal Birkdale in the 1971 British Open, and Isao Aoki of Japan pushing Jack Nicklaus at Baltusrol in the 1980 U.S. Open until he had to settle for second place.
“It was going to happen one day,” said Woods, whose heritage is half-Asian through his Thai-born mother. “If anyone would have thought it would have been a Korean player, people probably would have suspected it be K.J., because obviously he’s played well for such a long period of time. Y.E. has won now a couple of big events. He’s getting better.
“But it was just a matter of time.”
The first breakthrough for Japan came in 1957 and what is now the World Cup, won by Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono. For South Korea, major success had been limited to the women, starting with Se Ri Pak’s victory in the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. Perhaps no other player from any country has been a greater pioneer: Six other South Korean women have won LPGA majors since then.
Whether Yang’s victory has a similar effect will take years to find out.
Wally Uihlein, CEO of the company that owns the Titleist and FootJoy brands, who helped match the China Golf Association and the Australian PGA to develop a teacher certification program in China, says growth depends on many factors.
Among them are a strong middle class, a golf teaching program, ample places to play—driving ranges are as important as golf courses – and the presence of the professional game. If Yang’s victory has a ripple effect, he believes the biggest waves will be in Korea.
“Korea is in a league of its own, and no one should be surprised with their success in men’s and women’s golf,” Uihlein said in an e-mail Monday morning. “It has been taking shape for the past 10 years.”
Yang’s victory at the PGA Championship comes nearly one year after 18-year-old Danny Lee, who was born in South Korea and raised in New Zealand, won the U.S. Amateur to replace Woods in the record book as the youngest champion.
Two years ago, Seung Yul Noh had the lowest qualifying score in the U.S. Junior Amateur.
“As to its impact on some of the other countries in the Pacific Basin, that remains to be seen,” Uihlein wrote. “One could argue as competitive as the region is, if Korea steps on the pedal, then the other countries will too, so as not to be left too far behind.”
At the moment, Yang stands alone – the first Asian-born man to win a major, the first player anywhere to beat Woods after he led going into the last round of a major.
“This is heartening,” Dawson said. “This is long overdue.”