JEJU ISLAND, South Korea – When Y.E. Yang returns for a tournament on his home island for the first time since winning the PGA championship, the South Korean crowd will be fixated on the man they call “The Tiger Hunter.”
Yang beat Tiger Woods at Hazeltine in August to become the first Asian man to win one of golf’s majors, earning him a new nickname in his homeland. He returns to Jeju Island for a tournament for the first time since that stirring triumph when he tees off Thursday in the Ballantine’s Championship at the Pinx Club.
The $2.9 million event is jointly sanctioned by the European and Asian tours, along with the Korean PGA, and promises to be very different from the inaugural tournament in 2008.
Back then, Yang finished unnoticed in a tie for 43rd.
“I guess there will be a bit more people (cheering) for me and my main goal is to leave an impression with them, the sponsors who have invested so much in me and ultimately put up a good show worthy of a major winner,” Yang said.
Yang didn’t start playing golf seriously until he was 19, when he took a job at a club in Jeju, where he’d grown up on a vegetable farm. His career took time to gather momentum until a meteoric rise over the last 12 months.
“I have learnt how to handle my nerves, but philosophy wise, it has always been step by step,” Yang said. “I always keep it steady and slow, and not try to rush it. If I had tried to vault myself from the Korean PGA to the PGA Tour, I think I would still be playing in Korea.”
Yang warmed up for the event in style last weekend, winning the China Open at Shanghai, his first victory since the PGA Championship and one he hopes will silence suggestions that the Hazeltine triumph was an aberration.
“It was quite important for me to win,” Yang said. “There (were) some doubters about my game and I know that this win won’t abolish all those doubts, but I think it will alleviate me of some of the pressure those doubters have been throwing at me.”
More importantly, Yang is keen to carry on the momentum in South Korea.
“I haven’t won two weeks in a row before,” he said. “Perhaps that is an issue about me not being as focused in the next tournament after I’ve just won.”
Yang will have to first contend with a number of world-class players vying for the title.
Anthony Kim, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour whose parents moved from South Korea to the United States before he was born, is looking to build on his third-place finish at the Masters.
“I’m very excited and honored to be here in Korea, and I’ve been looking forward to coming back here to this tournament for a long time,” Kim said. “As far as my form is concerned, I’ve been scoring well and I’ve been playing pretty good golf.
“I’m pretty happy about how I’m playing in general, but mostly about how I’m chipping and putting. So if I can keep that up, I should be in good shape.”
Three-time major winner Ernie Els, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and defending champion Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand are also in the field.
Most of the big names made it to South Korea despite the travel chaos caused by the volcanic ash cloud covering large parts of Europe, although some were not so lucky. Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain is among 11 golfers who will miss the tournament due to travel problems.