Y.E. Yang was an unknown entity to much of the golf world before last week. His upset of Tiger Woods will force everyone to take a closer look
CHASKA, Minn. -- There wasn't much of an after-party. It consisted of a dinner at the Hoban Korean restaurant near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where Y.E. Yang and his family dined all week, and then a gathering in the lobby of the Eden Prairie Courtyard Marriott late Sunday night. For the most part, the new PGA champion celebrated one of the greatest upsets in golf history with people who spoke his language. Almost all the faces in the crowd were Korean, one of the exceptions being an American caddie by the name of A.J. Montecinos, who as part of the cultural process admits to meeting Yang halfway. "I'm even starting to like Korean music," he said.
Dan Jenkins has already said that Yang will be the Jack Fleck of Tiger Woods' career, but Yang is much more than a club pro from Iowa. He already shanghaied Tiger in the HSBC late in 2006, while Woods was in the middle of winning everything, and this past spring at the Honda Classic, held on to win a tour event in Florida. True, Woods had 70 wins to Yang's one, but the depth of golf talent around the world is something Jack Nicklaus never confronted -- and neither did the almighty Ben Hogan.
I remember seeing Yang in the player hospitality area before this year's CA Championship, at a table with K.J. Choi and agent Michael Yim just a few days after his win at Honda. At the time, Yang's win over John Rollins on a leader board devoid of star power in Palm Beach Gardens didn't resonate. Choi was the man in Korea, only three years older, but the guy was still recognized as the trailblazer, the Se Ri Pak of his countrymen. Yang was the apprentice. Now he's the first Asian-born winner of a men's major.
Now it is Yang who is on the front pages of the Korean papers, and it was Yang on the phone with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak in the locker room at Hazeltine Sunday night, wrapped in a towel after a post-round shower, hair still wet. It's amazing that Yang would want to wash any of that afterglow off, after striking a Shaun Micheel-like shot that Tiger could not answer.
The Choi and Yang stories are similar in a sense that both their parents are farmers from Jeju Island, both had the career interruption of mandatory military service -- although it was while in uniform that both were able to hone their games. They now live as neighbors in suburban Dallas, with Choi recently moving from his home in Houston. Whether on the road or now at home, the Koreans are like the Japanese players on tour in that they like to stick together.
The language barrier is part of it. Ken Kennerly noticed that after Yang won his tournament in March, but words aren't always necessary in communicating a feeling. Out on the road, promoting his event, Kennerly bumps into Yang and an interpreter is not needed. "I continually say, 'Ken Kennerly, Honda Classic,' and a big smile comes on his face,' Kennerly said.
The big smile on Yang's face as he lifted and shoulder pressed his golf bag for the grandstands around the 18th green at Hazeltine was another way of showing that words aren't always needed in getting the message across. He was the stronger of the two golfers in the final twosome that afternoon, and when Yang hit the historic 3-hybrid, it led Woods to missing his second straight green.
Yang's Cash-for-Clunker Program
It was shocking to all but Yang, who went through the process with Montecinos as if it were he and K.J. in a Tuesday practice round. There was never a sign of worry on his face, never a change in his stride or rhythm. All those players who have melted in the final round over the years, and Yang treated the situation as if Tiger didn't exist.
"He's got a heart and he's not afraid to show it," Montecinos said.
The caddie's story is a good one as well. He grew up the son of a combination golfer and construction worker, moving from Chicago to Texas to California as Jimmy Montecinos, or "Jimmy The Greek" as he was known by the hustlers, tried to mount a career. A mixture of Italian and Spanish, his son A.J. was good enough to get a scholarship offer from Eddie Payton at Jackson State, the historically black college in Mississippi that dominates the National Minority Tournament.
Jimmy made it as high as the finals of Champions Tour Q School and drove his son across the country during a Christmas break to check out the school. "Eddie told me it was about 60/40," Montecinos said of the black-to-white percentage at the school. "But I got there and it was 99.8 percent black." Didn't matter, Montecinos fit right in and got his picture in Sports Illustrated's Faces In The Crowd when he won the individual title and Jackson State the team title in 1997.
Montecinos, 35, bounced around after college. He played the Montgomery Sports mini-tour; worked in the cart barn at the opening of Trump International in West Palm Beach; was a teaching pro in Detroit;, coached Jim Dent's son and the golf team at Talladega College; caddied for former Jackson State teammate Tim O'Neal for a two years; opened a clothing company based around a Christian logo that delivers the message "God is in Control"; and was existing on peanut butter sandwiches when Hoss Uresti, brother of Omar Uresti, called in late 2007 saying he needed to caddie for Yang during second stage qualifying at Oak Valley near his parent's home in Beaumont, Ca. They won medalist honors, but Yang went to Q School finals with another caddie, got his card, and finished 157th on the money list. Back at school last winter, Montecinos got the call again.