Yang returns to defend Honda title


PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Y.E. Yang rubbed his hands together against the chill as the wind nearly sent his visor flying, then tugged on his bright red jacket.

A little unseasonable weather isn’t taking away from his return to PGA National.

“Even though it’s very chilly outside,” Yang said later, “it feels very warm to me.”

As well it should.

The 2009 Honda Classic started what in many ways was a breakthrough year for Yang, the Korean player who, until this week a year ago, was best known for holding off Tiger Woods at the HSBC Masters at Shanghai in 2006 and snapping a streak of six straight stroke-play wins by the world’s No. 1 player.

Then he handled the field at PGA National in 2009, holding off John Rollins by a shot. A bit more than five months later, he took down Woods again, that time for the PGA Championship. And now Yang is back in South Florida, looking to defend his Honda Classic title against a field that includes a slew of top international players like Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington.

“This place is very dear to me,” Yang said. “It’s given me my first victory on the PGA Tour. So it’s always going to have a special place in my heart.”

Y.E. Yang after winning the 2009 US Open
Y.E. Yang after winning the 2009 US Open (Getty Images)
The field has a distinctly European feel; the top American teeing off when the tournament opens the tour’s Florida swing on Thursday is Anthony Kim, currently No. 30 in the World Golf Ranking. One of the top up-and-coming Americans, Rickie Fowler, is in the field, looking not only for a strong follow-up to finishing second last week at the Phoenix Open, but possibly qualify for next week’s CA Championship at Doral as well.

And the weather, it too has a touch of the European Tour.

Temperatures across South Florida are supposed to be 10 degrees or more below normal throughout the remainder of the week. Those with early morning tee times might wake up to the mercury below 50, downright frosty for this section of the country. Jackets were everywhere on Wednesday, and Steve Marino even broke out a ski cap.

“We are ready to start sweating,” said Casey, who also endured a big chill while finishing as the runner-up for the second straight year at Match Play two weeks ago, when Arizona also had unseasonable cold.

Weather, though, seems to be the least of everyone’s concerns.

Narrow fairways, thick rough and testy greens make PGA National tough enough.

“It’s one of the toughest courses,” Harrington said. “If you don’t like this golf course, your game isn’t good enough. That’s it. That’s the reality of this course.”

Then there’s the wind.

Forecasters say it could blow out of the west and northwest throughout the weekend, with gusts Thursday and Friday exceeding 20 mph, then slowing a bit for the weekend.

It could make holes 15, 16 and 17 – the Bear Trap, a nod to course redesigner Jack Nicklaus – downright diabolical.

The 15th is a par-3 to a diagonally shaped green that slopes toward water, followed by a par-4 to an elevated green with an approach over water, followed by another par-3 over water with a noticeably tight green.

In calm conditions, par is a great score at any of them. In wind, good luck.

“Really when we did the holes, the two water holes, we made them very short par 3s,” Nicklaus said. “We didn’t realize the wind was going to play such a difficult situation and play havoc with everything they do. But it turned out that way and you know, it got nicknamed the Bear Trap after that. So I guess I got famous for that.”

Yang got famous for taming them.

A year later, he’s telling the secret, that there was a very specific reason why he was able to win at PGA National a year ago.

That reason: Somewhere along the way, he stopped trying to win the tournament.

One shot to the next, that was Yang’s only focus last year at PGA National, when the Honda became his first PGA Tour win and pushed him along the path toward becoming a major champion.

“During the Honda Classic last year, I tried to strategize each hole,” Yang said. “I didn’t really think beyond every hole. And I think by playing each hole to the utmost of my abilities, that’s what really changed my game, and that’s the same that happened afterwards, as well, in every other tournament.”

At least, until last week.

He was in position to win at Phoenix before a tee shot went into the water at No. 17, and he wound up two shots back of Hunter Mahan.

“Looking back on last week, I think it was some good medicine for me,” Yang said. “If I can bring back what I’ve learned last year over here at PGA National, I think I can fare quite well through the remainder of this season.”

Funny. He left PGA National last year saying the same thing.