JERSEY CITY, N.J. – “From Jeju Island, South Korea, the 2009 PGA Championship winner, Y.E. Yang.”
Oh how improbable, how laughable that sounded just a few short weeks ago. And yet at 8:10 a.m. Thursday, at the 10th tee, for the first time Yang was introduced as a major champion.
Life has changed for the 37-year-old Korean. A day before, Yang was mobbed on the practice tee by Asian journalists. They snapped pictures, shot video, and peppered him with questions in his native Korean. An SBS (Seoul Broadcasting Systems) reporter asked Padraig Harrington to make sense of Yang’s win. It wasn’t quite the intensity (and insanity) of coverage showered on Japanese teen-sensation Ryo Ishikawa, but Yang is dealing with his rapid rise from anonymity to “rock star” status.
“It just seems that I have become more famous and that’s about it,” Yang said.
Yang has welcomed the attention and adulation. Heads turned wherever he walked. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, and answered questions via satellite with media back home in Korea.
But will he handle the pressure that accompanies his new-found fame?
All of a sudden Yang is bigger than fellow countrymen K.J. Choi. That’s what happens when you slay a giant, when you do the seemingly impossible. And yet Yang sounded almost apologetic for his unshakeable confidence on championship Sunday.
“I am a bit sorry to ruin the party,” Yang said. “You could say that I was the party pooper to Tiger’s long streak.”
Now, expectations are raised. The image of his holed eagle chip and his clutch hybrid shot at the 72nd hole to seal victory still are fresh in our mind. But will there be an encore?
At The Barclays, Yang played in front of a boisterous crowd of more than 100, most of them Asian supporters. They cheered with reckless abandon. Their hands burned from applause after Yang knocked a bunker shot next to the cup, when he showed his artistry around the greens, and bombed the longest and straightest drive in his group on the final hole. On each occasion, Yang nodded politely and waved back in appreciation. Was this how Arnie’s Army began?
They followed Yang’s every step, several of them holding umbrellas to shade the sun, which broke through the early morning cloud cover. For much of the round, Yang’s mouth was set in a grim line. But you didn’t need a translator to read Yang’s body language after a maintenance cart motored by during his approach shot at the par-5 eighth hole. Yang dropped his iron, stood arms akimbo, and glared pitchforks at the driver of the offending vehicle. Then he dropped a shot.
Afterwards, Yang blamed his five-birdie, five-bogey, even-par performance on fatigue, according to the Korean Broadcasting News reporter, who interviewed him in his native language. “He says he must get rest and he will play better tomorrow,” the reporter said.
A day before, he described the time since his victory as a whirlwind of international travel and barely “a lick of sleep,” and estimated that he slept only 20 hours total the week following the PGA Championship.
The Tuesday after his victory Yang flew to Carlsbad, Calif., and visited the headquarters of TaylorMade, his equipment sponsor. Yang toured the facility and met with employees, who cheered his triumph.
“They actually recognized me and started chanting ‘Y.E., Y.E.’ ” Yang said. “I felt like a rock star.”
But the highlight of his day occurred across the street at the TaylorMade test facility known as The Kingdom. Former U.S. President George W. Bush happened to be on the practice tee and congratulated Yang on his win.
“He asked me whether it was really nerve-wracking to play with Tiger for 18 holes,” Yang said. “He said it must have been less nerve-wracking than his eight years in office.”
They spoke for 30 minutes and agreed to play golf together some day in Dallas, where both Yang and the former president now live. Yang’s smile grew wider as he explained the delicious prospect of such a date.
“I told him that I would actually be willing to skip a tournament or two if he were willing to play golf with me,” Yang said.
Life is good for the PGA champion. All he needs now is some rest.