SEOUL, South Korea – Fans in golf-crazy South Korea set their alarms for 4 a.m. Monday to watch the PGA Championship on television, then celebrated with whoops as Y.E. Yang finished off his historic victory over Tiger Woods.
Yang became the first Asian-born man to win a major tournament, capping a stunning rise for an “average Joe” who didn’t pick up a club until he was 19 and went into the tournament ranked 110th in the world.
Fan Kim Soo-mi woke up before dawn to watch the final round on TV, and then scurried over to her local sports club when it opened at 6 a.m. to watch the final minutes along with jubilant fellow golfers.
“Seeing Yang ranked 110th in the world win against Tiger Woods, the best player in the world, I felt so proud to be a Korean today,” Kim said at the club in the Seoul suburb of Bundang.
Even South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, got up before sunrise to watch the tournament live. He later phoned Yang to offer his congratulations.
“I woke up at dawn today to watch the broadcast, and you played in a calm manner,” Lee told Yang, according to Lee’s office. “First of all, you enhanced our people’s morale by winning the major title for the first time as an Asian.”
Lee also praised Yang for persevering despite personal difficulties, calling his win a “come-from-behind victory” that was all the more valuable because of his life story, his office said.
Yang calls himself an “average Joe,” the son of a farmer on the tropical southern island of Jeju – a traditional honeymoon spot that in recent years has become a popular golfing destination.
Yang says he aspired to be a bodybuilder and once dreamed of owning his own gym. But a knee injury in his teens forced him to reconsider his athletic career, and at 19, he took a job at a local driving range at a friend’s recommendation after graduating from high school.
At the Ora driving range on Jeju, executive director Kim Young-chan said Yang practised for free in exchange for working as a ball boy. He recalled Yang as a late bloomer but a hard worker.
“After the guests left the driving range, he practised late into the night,” Kim said by telephone.
Suh Gee-young, a doctor who woke up early to watch the tournament and take a few practice swings before work, called Yang an inspiration to other Asian-born players seeking to make it big in the majors. Golf is huge in South Korea, which in recent years has produced a number of top female players. But the top ranks had until now evaded Asia’s men.
“I think Yang’s victory will give young Asian players a confidence that they can beat the odds in any situation,” he said.
Golf instructor Kim Won-jun, 43, said he’s met Yang several times.
“I personally know Yang and what distinguishes him from other players is his emotional stability,” Kim said. “He is in total control during his game so when he has the chance, he’s able to immediately seize it.”
Around him, dozens of early risers were taking swings at the Kolon Sporex club’s indoor driving range as others gathered around a nearby large-screen TV to watch replays of Yang’s win in Chaska, Minn.
Lee Jong-hoon, 33, said chatter about Yang’s victory filled the halls of the Seoul hospital where he is a physician.
“I’m a fan of Yang because he overcame many obstacles to become a golfer,” Lee said. “I think what makes his victory especially meaningful is not only the fact that he’s Asian but also the fact that he was a true underdog.”
Associated Press Writers Jae Hee Suh and Wanjin Park in Seoul, and AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Chaska, Minn., contributed to this report.