By Kwang-tae Kim and Jean H. Lee
The Associated Press
JEJU, South Korea (AP) — Y.E. Yang played baseball, basketball, soccer, and volleyball as a child.
He played 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 left, 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 the 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 that a No. 1 player lost a major while being in the lead and 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.
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, which was interrupted every few minutes by calls from well-wishers.
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. Ko said they would throw a party to celebrate his victory. 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 Associated Press. “Since he has finally reached the peak, I hope that he will work even harder to become better and defend his position.”
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.”
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. “Probably our biggest day. It’s always been our hope that we will see an Asian player win a major, and that day is here.”
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.
South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, also woke up before dawn to see Yang play and later phoned to congratulate the champion.
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.
Most South Korean golfers go through a rigorous “elite” course for aspiring pros. But Yang was already far older than the students and didn’t have the money for lessons or green fees.
He 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 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. ♦
Before there was Yang, there were …
Isao Aoki is the first Asian winner on the PGA Tour when he won the Hawaiian Open in 1983.
K.J. Choi is the first South Korean to win a PGA Tour event at the Compaq Classic in 2002.
Chako Higuchi is the first Japanese golfer to win a major championship. She won two LPGA tournaments, including the 1977 LPGA Championship.
Shingo Katayama has topped the Japan Golf Tour money list five times in 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2008. He is currently the highest ranked Japanese golfer.
Shigeki Maruyama won all five of his matches at the Presidents Cup in 1998. He is the first Asian with multiple PGA title wins.
Ayako Okamoto has 17 LPGA tour victories. She was named the LPGA Player of the Year and LPGA money leader in 1987.
Se Ri Pak opened the door for Asians in golf. She has 24 wins, five majors, and a scoring title. She won the LPGA Championship in 1998, 2002, and 2006.
Vijay Singh, a Fijian, has won three major championships and was the leading PGA Tour money winner in 2003, 2004, and 2008.
Associated Press writer Jean H. Lee reported from Seoul. AP writers Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia; Jae Hee Suh and Nicolai Hartvig in Seoul, and AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Chaska, Minn., also contributed to this report.