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Minnesota golf's got Seoul: A look back at Yang, Woods and the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National

Zachary Michael JackBy Zachary Michael Jack,
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Y.E. Yang - PGA Championship at Hazeltine
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Y.E. Yang electrified the gallery Sunday at Hazeltine National. (Courtesy of the PGA of America)

CHASKA, Minn. - Tiger Woods' 3-over-par, final-round 75 at the 91st PGA Championship Sunday at Hazeltine National had more ups and downs than the famed roller coaster at the nearby Valley Fair Amusement Park in Shakopee and longer odds than the darkest of dark horses racing that night at Canterbury Park Racetrack, from whence record crowds shuttled to and from the Robert Trent Jones layout that Dave Hill dismissed in 1970 as a "cow pasture."

In truth, Hill's 39-year-old grump holds less water than Lake Hazeltine, as this full-grown golf course proves anything but a treeless tract. Its narrow, oak-lined, bunker-framed doglegs, accounting for the longest total yardage in major championship history, make underrated Hazeltine National feel more like stately staples Medinah or Oak Hill Country Club than Dave Hill's slight.

And while the suburbs of southwest Minneapolis may be uber efficient and hyper sanitized (the Mall of America beckons in nearby Bloomington), the outcome of Sunday's David versus Goliath showdown proved anything but pre-packaged and Plain Jane.

As Woods and Y.E. Yang swapped pars on the 13th, a robust, corn-fed, wind-whipped 248-yard monster three-par, the script seemed familiar - Woods tied and presumably toying with a journeyman pro du jour, just as he had with Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South.

Then Woods, marching to the private port-a-john back of the pivotal 14th tee, came toe to toe with one of those famously down-to-earth Middle Western fans, who, as the Great One approached, whispered, "Ten bucks says he takes a leak right here," and, as the Maestro passed, bent the Great One's ear with: "Stay in the moment, Tiger, stay in the moment!"

But that bit of obnoxious fandom, so uncharacteristic of suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul's decorum, may be as good a reason as any for what turned out to be Woods' freakishly bad mojo on the 14th, where eventual winner and 110-ranked Y.E. Yang pitched in a dagger-of-an-eagle, and commenced one of the most shocking upsets in recent sports history.

Or, if you believe the Water Closet Whisperer back of the 14th tee, it just might have been the game-day Chaska traffic that caused Woods' wheels to come off, as the same gent swore to a confirmed citing of Tiger behind the wheel of his Buick darting in and out of traffic - sans signal - at 10:30 a.m. that fateful morning.

Signals, as the final round opened at Hazeltine National on Sunday, pointed not toward a Tiger topping but toward a 15th major championship win for Woods and a NASCAR-esque wreck for overmatched playing partner Yang.

And for the first baker's dozen holes, the action went according to script. Tiger played Tiger, despite a few greenside miscues, wearing his Sunday red and earning his legendary stripes. Yang played Dogged Pursuer, sporting a red rooster on the back of his whiter-than-white get-up.

As Woods and Yang vied wordlessly, eyeballing their putts on the front side like famously steely-eyed billiard legends Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi locked in a grudge match, nary a remote roar was heard. In the amphitheater that is a typical major championship course on Sunday (think Augusta National), hoots and hollers build and swell like the sounds of a Minnesota Vikings tailgate reaching sudden fever pitch.

Nary a distant roar went up, that is, because all the principal Woods-Yang pursuers - defending champ Padraig Harrington and U.S. Open victor Lucas Glover - failed to make much noise, literally or figuratively. Meanwhile Woods and Yang, forced into de facto match play, grinded out largely cheerless pars and bogeys.

But Yang's electrifying eagle on the 14th had Minnesota golf fans hanging from the rafters, or at least from the limbs, as the two golfing gladiators exchanged blows up the 15th and 16th holes. From a fan standpoint, the 91st PGA Championship was a free-for-all - a well-behaved, Nordic free-for-all but a free-for-all nevertheless - as unusually laissez faire PGA officials let down their hair, and the gallery ropes, while fans surged across the holes adjoining the Woods-Yang fairy story as it unfolded on the lakeside par-4 16th, where a flotilla of canoes carrying kids emerged from the reeds just as Tiger and Yang reached their tee shots. On land, still more kids of Norman Rockwell vintage climbed pines for a birds-eye, their brightly clad bodies decorating the trees like Christmas ornaments.

In the end, even the gallery was spent. The only thing arguably more difficult than playing the longest course in major championship history at a whopping 7,674 yards is walking it - and walking it. The always-game Twin Cities fans steeled themselves for the back nine as Yang caught Tiger at the eighth; sneaked a badly needed breather at the turn; fought off sunstroke climbing the 606-yard par-5 11th; stirred in muted disbelief at the two-shot swing in Yang's favor on the short, par-4 14th; bit their collective nails on the 17th awaiting the descent of Tiger's do-or-die moonshot nine-iron; and, finally, with a head shake and a stoic "it's over" after Tiger's missed par, moved like 50,000 head of weary Herefords toward the waiting cattle gates, chutes and shuttles that would take them back to their cars at the Canterbury Park Racetrack.

Record crowd + laissez les bonne temps roulez PGA officials + longest course ever = fans who forgot to pace themselves - over par for the course, you might say, and too pooped to party by the time Yang stuck his utility wood within 10 feet on the uphill 18th, making history as the first Asian player to win a major, and send Tiger Woods packing.

So much for the supposedly provincial Middle West, so long to "flyover country," sayonara to Hazeltine National's unearned rep. as a ho-hum layout. Yang's unlikely win plastered his likeness on front pages from Seoul to Shanghai to New Delhi, brought down a Tiger and put Asian and Midwestern golf, those two unlikely and equally underrated bedfellows, firmly back on the global map.

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Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."

 
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