Tiger returns to the PGA, the major where the paradigm of his on-course career changed.
“Tiger’s nervous” whispered Y.E. Yang to his caddie after the 14-time major winner hit an underwhelming layup coming down the closing four-hole stretch of the 2009 PGA Championship. Yang had just chipped in for eagle at the 14th hole, waiting until the final hour on Sunday to become the only player that week not named Tiger to hold a solo lead, and Woods had just fatted a layup at the par-5 15th. The dramatic swing happened so fast in day that felt like a slow, rather unexciting march to the inevitable: a 15th major for Tiger. Yang connected on the perfect uppercut out of nowhere and stunned the heavy favorite. It only took an hour but impacted the next decade of major championships and changed golf history.
Tiger held a two-shot 54-hole lead over Yang and Padraig Harrington. He did not lose 54-hole leads. He especially did not lose them at the majors, ever. This was the blueprint for Tiger’s first 14 majors and it was how it was going to go down this Sunday in Minneapolis. Yang was just another name that would be forgotten from a day to be remembered as the latest addition to Tiger’s resume. At the time, the safe assumption was that resume was going to blow by Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, and could perhaps approach a tally close to 30. We’re still stuck at 14.
Even from his second-place position, Yang was perhaps the unlikeliest choice to end Tiger’s automatic Sunday closing form at the majors. The top 10 from that Sunday is loaded with major championship winners and Hall-of-Famers. It was a who’s who of powers in the game at the time and eventual superstars. There was obviously Woods. Harrington was a 3-time major winner starting the same position as Yang. Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, and Martin Kaymer, among several other major winners and elite talents, all posted top 10 results. But what we got in the final hours was a two-man race between the most and least accomplished players in the entire set.
While Woods had not been at his best over the two weekend rounds, the change at the top came so sudden. I remember yelping out loud as I watched Yang chip-in for eagle at the 14th. It was a drivable par-4, the one where you expect Tiger to go big and try to pull off a deuce. But it was Yang with the short game that changed the entire championship. The shot broke the 6-under tie. Tiger would roll in his birdie right after the hole-out, but Yang’s eagle gave him a lead he would never relinquish.
This was the shot that gave him the lead, but the shot that won him the championship came three holes later and also elicited a scream from couch as I watched. The pressure should have all been on Yang, the untested challenger. Instead, he spent the day easily moving alongside the icy Tiger and caddie Stevie Williams, at one point even challenging a rules official it was the 14-time major winner, not him, that was playing too slow. And it was Tiger, as Yang’s quote about the fatted layup indicated, that looked nervy over the final hours. Yang never showed any nerviness even to the final hole. He stood on the 18th with a one shot lead, miles from the pin and needing a long iron to get home on a Hazeltine course that stretched to almost 7700 yards that week.
The mid to long approach may be the hardest shot in golf, but Yang pured one from the first cut that landed almost on top of the flag. It was a 3-hybrid from 206 yards. He had a one-shot lead. His ball off that 3-hybrid had to quickly climb up and over a tree that extended from left side of the hole. The pin was all the way back on a three-tiered green. It would have been fine to take less, play a more conservative line, and win your major. Instead, we got one of the greatest 18th hole shots in major championship history. This is every bit as good as Micheel’s 7-iron to tap-in distance. Even though he didn’t need to, Yang made the putt to finish with a birdie and capitalize on this incredible approach.
Is Y.E. Yang’s 2009 come-from-behind victory against Tiger the greatest in @PGAChampionship history?
— PGA of America (@PGA) August 6, 2018
At the midpoint, Yang was not even on the radar. He was a good six shots back from Tiger. He had won once — that spring at the Honda Classic — on the PGA Tour. There was really no indication that he, of all people, could be the one to change the dynamic of the rest of Tiger’s major championship career. But that’s what makes this one of my favorite PGAs ever, even if it is tough to take as a Tiger appreciator. Tiger is arguably the greatest golfer of all time. His presence on leaderboards, specifically at majors, often elevated lesser-known or no-name players. We know who Bob May is not just because he contended at a major, but because it came against Tiger. Yang’s win against any other player from those top 10 finishers listed above is largely forgotten.
It’s not a pleasant memory for Tiger fans, who cite Yang as this sort of bogeyman that “ruined” some coronation. But it can be two things at once: a “what if” punch to the gut and an insane finish from a nobody underdog that’s worth celebrating forever. Yang became the first Asian-born player to win a men’s major championship. Those final four holes are among the best in PGA history, given the circumstances.
We’d see glimpses of that “nervous” Tiger the next month when he blew a short putt to win at The Barclays, and then again at several more majors in the years that followed. Tiger’s personal scandal would erupt just a few months after Yang beat him as he crashed his Escalade into a fire hydrant on Thanksgiving weekend. The aftermath of that has been cited over and over for Tiger’s inability to win a major since. The unknown Yang finally being the one to land an uppercut on Tiger on Sunday of a major receives far less attention. But it changed paradigm of Tiger’s major career.
Woods returns to the PGA this week after a three-year absence from the championship. It’s been more than a decade since he won a major and this 2009 upset is the closest he’s come in that 10-year span. The intervening decade of injuries and embarrassments would make another major, this week or at any point down the line, the greatest comeback in the sport’s history. Of course there have been majors with more historically significant winners. But, whether you’re a Tiger fan or hater, the 2009 PGA, thanks to those two obscene shots from Yang and the sudden back nine shift, had a lasting impact that few major finishes do.
The PGA Championship is hitting the century-mark this week and as part of that, the PGA is having a contest to determine the greatest championship from those 100 years. I chose 2009 as a worthy candidate to write about for the stated impacts above, but it got bounced this week by a worthy opponent, John Daly’s miracle 1992 win. Voting will be open all week here as the contest progresses through the bracket during the 100th championship.