In South Korean lore, the windswept tropical island of Jeju, which sits just off the country's southern coast, used to be known as the land of "manys": as in, many winds, many rocks (of the volcanic variety) and many widows (of fisherman husbands who perished in the choppy waters offshore). But folklore can only do so much, and now, 21st century Korea has a real-life legend that Jeju can be rightly proud of: its most famous native son, Yang Yong-eun, a.k.a. the Tiger Tamer.
Yang, 37, better known as Y.E. Yang, stunned the sports world Sunday, Aug. 16, and did more for Asian golf over 18 holes than had ever been achieved before by beating odds-on favorite Tiger Woods in the final round of the USPGA championship. Yang's triumph means that the Asian world finally has a major winner, and he couldn't have done it under less enviable circumstances. The 110th-ranked player in the world was paired with Woods, who, lest we forget, had won all his 14 major championships the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and USPGA when holding the lead going into the last round and had never lost any tournament on U.S. soil when leading by more than one shot. Other big names on the tour seem to retreat into the fetal position when confronted by Woods at the climax to a major. Not Yang. For the first time ever, a player in the final pairing not only reeled Woods in (the South Korean trailed by two shots at the start of play Sunday) but did it with such panache to wit, chipping in from short of the green for an eagle two on 14 and making an extraordinary approach shot on 18 as he negotiated a tree that blocked his view of the pin that Yang's achievement has become the stuff of instant golf legend.
Yang is a relative latecomer to the game. While Woods famously putted against Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show when he was 2, Yang didn't even pick up a club until he was 19. The fourth of eight children in his family, he finished his mandatory 18-month stint in the Korean army at the age of 21, the same age Woods was when he won his first major. His father Yang Han-joon, a poor farmer from Jeju, far from encouraging him to play (as Tiger's late father Earl did), actively discouraged him. Han-joon said that "golf was a rich man's game played for fun, and that he had no business playing it because it couldn't help him earn a living", Yang recalled in an interview earlier this year.
So Yang discovered the game almost by accident. After high school, a friend had gotten him a job at a local driving range a job he took because in addition to the pay, he was able to eat and sleep at the range. Yang had graduated from an agricultural high school, and when one of his former teachers, Kang Wan-ho, heard that his former student was working at a golf range, "I figured he was just taking care of the lawn," Kang says.
But Yang was doing much more than that. He started practicing on his own during the evenings, and the game took hold of him. Even after his father forced him to quit and take a higher-paying construction job, Yang's interest in golf persisted, and he would practice without his father's knowledge. ("Who knows," Han-joon says now with a laugh, "maybe if I had encouraged him, he wouldn't have played.) Incredibly, he effectively taught himself how to master the notoriously difficult sport on Jeju's double-decked driving ranges, not taking formal lessons until he turned pro in 1996.
Some modest success followed in the form of a few victories, mainly on the Asian tour. But intriguingly, last weekend's USPGA wasn't the first time Yang had beaten Woods: he had done the same at the 2006 HSBC Open in Shanghai. Yang's father believes that was the critical stepping stone to the victory on Sunday. "He beat Tiger once. He knew he could beat Tiger again," Han-joon tells TIME. "But more importantly, he thought he had nothing to lose in a match against the world-famous Woods."
Asian-born players have come close to tasting glory in the majors before: Taiwan's Liang-Huan Lu finished one shot behind Lee Trevino at the 1971 British Open, and his fellow countryman T.C. Chen's infamous two-chip gaffe cost him dearly at the 1985 U.S. Open. And credit must clearly also be given as Yang did on Sunday to South Korean female golfer Se Ri Pak, who has won two majors.
Not that this diminishes Yang's victory. When asked why he seems able to stand up to the game's greatest player when so many others fall flat, Yang joked Sunday that "I know Tiger isn't going to beat me up on the green. I just play cool and easy." But Yang also believes in his ability, saying that his success is no fluke. Going head to head against the mighty Woods is "something I sort of visualized quite a few times, playing with him in the final round of a major championship," Yang said after his earth-shattering victory. "I always sort of dreamed about this." As golf fans around the world watched in disbelief as Yang hoisted his golf bag over his head in triumph, they could be forgiven for harboring similar dreams.