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Sunday, August 16, 2009
Yang snatches PGA from Tiger's grasp

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

CHASKA, Minn. -- I can't believe what I just saw.

I can't believe I just saw Y.E. Yang win the PGA Championship. I can't believe I just saw Tiger Woods lose it.

"It's both," said Woods. "I mean, I certainly ... was in control of the tournament most of the day. I was playing well, hitting the ball well. I was making nothing, but still either tied for the lead or ahead."

It wasn't a choke. Woods shot 75, not 85. And it wasn't a fluke. After all, Yang shot the lowest round of the day. Plus, he made two career-changing swings that neutralized Woods' final-round aura, including a nerveless, 206-yard 3-iron hybrid shot on the last hole that arched over the outstretched branches of a tree and just cleared the ankle-high rough and yawning greenside bunker before settling just 8 feet from the pin.

But whatever the level is just below choke -- and I don't know what you'd call it -- that's where Woods ended up. He faltered. He needed 33 putts to complete the round. He was the old woman on the medic alert commercial who fell and couldn't get up. Then again, it's hard to regain your balance when Yang has his golf cleats across your throat.

"I played well enough to win the championship," Woods said. "I did not putt well enough to win the championship."

As for Yang, Woods said, "Y.E. played great all day. I don't think he really missed a shot all day."

On a blustery, cloud-specked Sunday afternoon at Hazeltine National Golf Club, the inevitable happened: Woods' streak of invincibility came to a stunning end. Fourteen times he had entered the final round of a major with at least a share of the lead. Fourteen times he had ended the day with a kiss-and-hug session with a championship trophy or jug.

Not this time. This time he was outplayed by a South Korean ranked 110th in the world. Seven years earlier, at this same course and this same tournament, he was outplayed by Rich Beem, ranked 73rd.

But Woods never led at the 2002 PGA. Here, though, he held the lead after Thursday's round, Friday's round and Saturday's round. He began Sunday's round 2 strokes ahead of Yang and Padraig Harrington. Two strokes with just 18 holes left? That's like giving Usain Bolt a 10-meter head start in the 100.

I thought it was over. I think Woods thought it was probably over. I'm guessing the Yang family thought it was over too.

Instead, we got a golf miracle and a golf letdown all in the same day. Just as Harrington had predicted a day earlier, Yang wasn't overwhelmed by Woods or the moment. Never once did he look like he needed to hyperventilate or ralph into a brown paper bag. At times he looked more like Tiger than Tiger did.

"I made absolutely nothing," Woods said. "I just have to say terrible day on the greens. And I had it at the wrong time."

This is the year that Woods didn't win a major, but Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Yang did. Engravers at the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA are being treated for shock. So am I. Maybe so is Woods.

Earlier in the week, Woods was asked if he'd consider 2009 a success even if he didn't win a major. Woods didn't hesitate; of course, he would. A year ago he could barely walk because of reconstructive knee surgery. He entered the PGA Championship with five tour victories, which lapped the rest of the field.

But now I wonder if he'd give the same answer. Woods had the lead or a share of the lead for the first 67 holes of this championship. He was thisclose to his 15th majors victory. And then he wasn't. Doesn't that change the trigonometry of Woods' thinking about this year?

He could still win the Fed Ex Cup (whooee!). He is the no-brainer favorite for player of the year. He missed the cut at the Open Championship, but still finished with three top-six finishes in the majors (T-6s at Augusta National and Bethpage and the second place here). For anyone else, they'd be popping champagne corks.

But this scab mark will need time to heal. It has to. Everything was in Woods' favor -- history, pedigree, the leaderboard -- and he blew it. Sort of. To say he completely fumbled the PGA away is to ignore how well Yang played when it absolutely counted.

"But it was just a matter of time," Woods said.

Woods was talking about the inevitability of an Asian player finally winning a major. Yang did that. But he also could have been talking about the law of averages. At some point somebody was going to end his 54-hole lead streak. He just didn't think it would be Sunday.

There is a rise and fall in every player's career. But anybody who thinks Woods is entering the "fall" phase hasn't been paying attention. He retooled his swing for the second half of his career. He didn't win a major in '09, but he contended in three of the four. And he did it, by his own admission, without putting well at Bethpage and Hazeltine. I'd throw the Masters into that too.

"Nobody in the history of the game has done better than [Nicklaus], he finished second 19 times," Woods said. "You have to give yourself enough chances to win them and I've done that. And I'm very proud of the changes I've made to get to this point. But unfortunately today, I just didn't get it done."

This was Woods' sixth career second-place finish in a major. If he's honest about it, it was his most painful.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.