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A Korean influence at PGA Tour opener

SBS Championship

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Y.E. Yang referred to it as a miracle – and he wasn’t talking about his PGA Championship victory over Tiger Woods.

Instead, he was surprised to hear in May that Seoul Broadcasting System had signed up to sponsor the season-opening tournament at Kapalua, the first time a South Korean company had agreed to sponsor a PGA Tour event.

“I have been wondering when a Korean company would be sponsoring a PGA event,” Yang said Wednesday through his interpreter. “I didn’t think it would be quite in the near future when I first landed on the PGA Tour. Miraculously this year, SBS has signed a 10-year deal to sponsor the opening event.”

The timing could not have been better, with Yang becoming the first Asian-born man to win a major.

Yang, a late bloomer from South Korea who didn’t take up golf until he was 19, had already qualified for the SBS Championship with a victory last March in the Honda Classic. He arrived on Maui as one of the biggest names in the winners-only field, at least as far as the sponsor and many of its clients are concerned.

During a Monday night party, when amateurs get to pick a player for the pro-am, Yang’s name wasn’t available, already set aside for the chairman of SBS and his group. The 37-year-old Yang can barely get from the range to the putting green to the clubhouse without being stopped for autographs and pictures.

For Yang, it feels like 2009 never ended, and for good reason.

During a whirlwind finish to an unforgettable year, he went from the World Cup in China to southern California for the Chevron World Challenge, then a brief stop at his home in Dallas before going to South Korea to be honored. He spent five days in his homeland before returning to Dallas – and a round of golf with former President George W. Bush – and then across the ocean to Maui.

“I wouldn’t say I’m in the best shape,” Yang said. “I’m fairly rested and ready to go on with this new season. However, it feels like it’s a continued season.”

It’s not the worst feeling, for sure.

Yang made history on so many fronts at Hazeltine in August. As well as being the first Asian to win a major, he did the unthinkable in the final round by rallying from two shots behind to defeat Woods, who had never lost a major when leading on the last day.

It was a boon for Asian golf and was part of a big year for South Korea. Beyong-Hun An won the U.S. Amateur, earning exemptions to the first three majors of the year, while Chang-won Han won the first Asian Amateur title and earned an automatic invitation to the Masters in April.

Even so, nothing was bigger than Yang taking down Woods – they call him “Tiger Killer” in Korea – and hoisting his golf bag over his head to celebrate on the 18th green at Hazeltine.

“He did it in style,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “He couldn’t do it any better than that, beating Tiger on the last day of a major. No one had managed to do it so far. Great to watch, cool character. Everyone on tour respects his game and was pretty excited that he is going to be around with us for a long time.”

The same can’t be said for Woods, at least not at the moment.

Even as the season gets under way Thursday in the warmth and beauty of Hawaii, optimism is checked by uncertainty about when Woods will return from a sex scandal that led him to take an indefinite break from golf.

Phil Mickelson also is skipping the season opener for the ninth straight year, waiting until San Diego to make his debut. That leaves only 28 players in the field, matching the tournament record for the smallest field.

For Yang, he is wistful about the absence of another player – K.J. Choi, who failed to win a PGA Tour event last year for the first time since 2004.

While Yang gets the attention as the first player from Asia to win a major, Choi blazed the trail. The year Yang won his first professional tournament, Choi was winning the first of his seven PGA Tour titles.

“At that time, K.J. was playing in a league of gods, you might say,” Yang said. “I was winning tournaments with Korean professionals, while K.J. was playing against the world’s top-ranked players. K.J. inspired a lot of players, not just myself, that Koreans can also play in the PGA Tour.”

Australia’s Ogilvy is the defending champion at Kapalua, a rare occasion when he is the only player in the field to have won on the Plantation Course. Only seven players are back for a second straight year at this tournament exclusively for last year’s PGA Tour winners.

It all creates a sense of uncertainty about 2010.

“This could be wide open,” Steve Stricker said. “I have a feeling Tiger will be back. He doesn’t need many events to get back to the top spot, whether it be in the FedEx Cup or money list or whatever.

“I hope that he’s back sooner than later. But it does have that feel to start the season that it’s wide open.”