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An Asian-born golfer had never won a men’s major. To right the record, he had to become ‘The Tiger Killer’

By Jack Bantock, CNN

(CNN) — After tossing and turning all through the night, Y.E. Yang awoke in uncharted waters. To complicate matters further, the golfing equivalent of the kraken circled around him.

On Sunday morning at the 2009 PGA Championship, the then-37-year-old South Korean – ranked 110th in the world – stood just 18 holes away from becoming the first Asian-born player to win a major golf championship.

Yet for one piece of history to be penned, another would have to be erased. Tiger Woods, world No. 1 for four years and counting, had never before surrendered a major after starting the final round atop the leaderboard – 14 leads, 14 wins.

Two shots clear, few tuning in to the finale at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minnesota, expected that run to be snuffed out.

Little did they know, “The Tiger Killer” was on the hunt.

Average Joe

In 1978, a two-year-old Woods doddered onto the set of the “The Mike Douglas Show” to showcase his already-impressive swing to the American public. By contrast, Yang – seven years his senior – had not even heard of a sport called golf until he was 19.

By that age, Woods had already made his debut at The Masters. Just two years later in 1997, he would finish 12 shots ahead of his nearest rival at Augusta National to become the major’s youngest ever winner and strengthen his claim to household name status.

Well, perhaps not every household. Some 7,400 miles away in the island province of Jeju, Yang was unaware of professional golf tournaments – let alone the PGA Tour – until his early twenties.

An aspiring bodybuilder, the teenager and self-confessed “average Joe” had dreamed of running his own gym. Yet when his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was torn in a fall down a flight of stairs, so too were those hopes.

Needing to make ends meet, a 19-year-old Yang took up a job at his local driving range on the suggestion of a friend. The pay was a world away from the riches Woods was accumulating at the same age, but the job allowed him to eat and sleep on site and – fatefully for his American counterpart – put a club in his hands.

Hooked from the first swing, Yang would break par for the first time three years later – his early progress entirely self-taught from pouring over tournament footage and instructional videos. It was a rate of improvement made even more impressive by the fact that he spent two years doing mandatory military service after his 21st birthday.

Yang had never intended to take it any further than that, but that changed when he learned of the professional circuits in Korea and beyond. He turned semi-professional aged 23 in 1995 before making the jump to pro the following August.

A maiden title would arrive six years later, but by 2007, he was still fighting to gain PGA Tour membership for the first time and was yet to win outside Asia.

However, his seventh and latest victory in Shanghai, China was a standout, and not just because it marked his first on the European Tour. A star-studded field could not keep pace with Yang at the 2006 HSBC Champions – even Woods.

The world No. 1 finished as runner-up, three shots adrift of the South Korean. It would not be the last time.

‘Who the heck is Y.E. Yang?’

Despite his giant-slaying efforts, Yang was still relatively unknown when he pitched up to PGA Tour qualifying school the following season.

“Who the heck is Y.E. Yang?” AJ Montecinos replied when a fellow caddie texted him to say that a talented South Korean was in need of a bagman for the second stage.

The Texas-based Montecinos would find out soon enough, as Yang won on the duo’s first team-up.

“I’d never been around a stronger golf mind, ever,” Montecinos told CNN.

“His mind was so simple, yet so strong. It blew me away how he never overthought, he never got in his own way – he just played golf and it was very impressive to watch.”

Yet as Yang clinched his first PGA Tour card and jetted across the US in 2008, Montecinos was forced to wait for his first taste of the circuit. The golfer had a different caddie setup for the final stage of qualifying and for his debut PGA Tour season, leaving Montecinos – without a bag to carry – “struggling” to sell mortgage loans in San Antonio.

Fate and faltering form would reunite the pair. Yang finished 157th on the money list for the season, forcing him back to qualifying school in 2009. Montecinos returned on Yang’s request, and the duo edged through in nail-biting fashion to preserve the golfer’s PGA Tour status.

It was enough to convince Yang to bring Montecinos along this time round, and the decision reaped instant reward. Yang clinched his first PGA Tour title on his fourth start of the season at the Honda Classic to join K.J. Choi as the only South Koreans to win on the premier circuit.

Into the Tiger’s den

Even so, Yang arrived at the PGA Championship that August as a rank outsider to lift the Wanamaker Trophy.

Seven prior major appearances had resulted in just two made cuts, but Yang started with the confidence of a seasoned contender at Hazeltine to cruise into the weekend in tied-ninth, six shots behind runaway leader Woods.

The chasing pack made up ground on moving day, and none more so than Yang, who shot a brilliant five-under 67. Not only did it rocket the underdog to within two shots of the American, but it also secured a final round pairing with him.

Yang had bested Woods once before, though this was an entirely different stage.

“At first when I saw the tee time, I was just really happy to be in the last group on the final day of a major,” he later told reporters.

“For a split second that was the first thought. And then second, my heart nearly pounded and exploded [from] being so nervous.”

Having failed in his bid to get to sleep early and woken several times in the night, Yang rose Sunday morning bleary-eyed and – as his agent relayed to Montecinos – still a little anxious.

The caddie was on hand with some soothing words, but any concerns Montecinos had evaporated when the South Korean raced out of the blocks to head to the fifth tee level at the top with Woods.

“From those first few holes, I didn’t know if he was going to win, but I knew he wasn’t going to back down – and that’s all I cared about,” Montecinos said.

“I think being nervous is a good thing. But knowing how to harness that nervous energy and knowing how to utilize that for your good instead of for your harm, I think that’s what makes Yang so special.

“I love staring down the best in the world, that’s what really gets me going. I was a little nervous as well, but I just knew that neither of us were going to beat ourselves.”

Of course, that still left the small problem of defeating – as far as Montecinos is concerned – the greatest ever to play the game.

It’s not only Woods the golfer you’re taking on, the caddie recalled – it’s also the 50-person-deep crowds roaring his every shot, as well as an incommunicable “aura” that even the game’s greatest have buckled under.

“Oh you definitely feel it. He had that kind of intimidation factor ever since he came on Tour,” Montecinos, who played against Woods in high school, said.

“Playing golf with Tiger in a major is like playing golf on the inside of a radio with every station going at the same time.”

Yet Yang refused to buckle, the conquering of his prior nerves perfectly summed up at the sixth hole when he was approached by a rules official ordering him to speed up his pace of play.

“Not me,” a deadpan Yang replied, raising his finger to point at Woods. “Him.”


As Woods wilted under a series of uncharacteristically sloppy putts, a remarkable chip-in eagle rewarded Yang with his first ever major lead at the 14th hole.

The South Korean roared in delight, and would repeat the celebration four holes later – this time with his golf bag raised triumphantly above his head – after a stunning 18th approach was converted by a birdie putt for the championship.

With Woods only able to bogey, compounding a disappointing three-over 75 final round, Yang was crowned a major champion and “The Tiger Killer” nickname was born.

“I wasn’t that nervous because it’s a game of golf,” Yang told reporters. “It’s not like … you’re fighting against Tiger and he’s going to bite you or swing at you with his nine-iron.

“I knew the odds were against me. I tried to be the least nervous I have ever been and went for broke.

“The worst I could do was just lose to Tiger and go a few ranks down in the final scoreboard. Nobody is going to be really disappointed that I lose. So I really had nothing much at stake and that’s how I played it,” he added.

Woods, having been denied a record-equaling fifth PGA Championship title, was magnanimous in defeat.

“I don’t think he really missed a shot all day … I think he played beautifully,” Woods said. “It was just a matter of time before an Asian-born player was going to win.”

That inevitability did little to quell the intensity of celebrations when Yang returned home.

“Just pandemonium,” Montecinos said, picturing the hordes that flocked to the airport in the twilight hours to greet Yang in Korea soon after. When he touched down for the Hong Kong Open, Asia’s first major champion was greeted by the sight of himself plastered on the side of a 10-storey building.

“It was just unbelievable, very surreal,” Montecinos added. “To be a part of history, I’m very grateful.”

Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama’s triumph at the 2021 Masters saw him join Yang in the exclusive winner’s circle for Asian players at majors. It is a far less exclusive club on the women’s side, with 35 LPGA major trophies handed out to South Korean champions alone.

Cast of 2009

Yang and Montecinos parted ways a few years later but recently caught up at an event on the PGA Tour Champions, the senior circuit where Yang – now 52 – is currently chasing a first victory.

“It was cool to see him,” said Montecinos. “It was the relationship I miss with Yang … We had a lot of fun together.”

Yang’s PGA Championship triumph remains his most recent at a Tour event, but his status as a former champion has ensured his near-permanent presence at the major. Bar 2020, Yang has competed at every edition since and is set to tee off for the 17th time at Valhalla in Kentucky on Thursday, 15 years after his famous victory.

He will be joined by Montecinos’ latest assignment, Chris Gotterup. The 24-year-old American stamped a last-minute ticket to Valhalla with his first PGA Tour victory at the inaugural Myrtle Beach Classic on Sunday.

Completing the cast of 2009 is Woods, still chasing a fifth Wanamaker. After a record-breaking 24th consecutive cut at The Masters last month, the 48-year-old remains adamant that – despite his well-documented injury woes – he is capable of adding to his 15-major haul.

Montecinos certainly isn’t ruling it out.

“I don’t think you should ever doubt that man, because he has done things in golf – and with a golf club – that nobody else has ever done,” Montecinos said.

“You cannot quantify the intestinal fortitude of a Tiger Woods. So in my mind, I believe that he will win again. I don’t know where that will be, or if it will be a major, but I would not put it past him.

“I would not doubt him, because he is the reason that we play for as much money as we play for. Period. There is no other player out there that moves the needle like he does. So we all should be very grateful for Tiger.”

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