Last Updated on Monday, 17 August 2009 18:34 Monday, 17 August 2009 17:38
SEOUL, South Korea -- Y.E. Yang's stunning win over Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship gave the burgeoning golf market in Asia something that no amount of money can buy: the region's first major champion.
Golfers and fans in Asia had access to some of the world's newest and most lush courses, the attention of global sponsors, broadcasters and administrators and a group of seven South Korean women who combined for 11 major titles.
But the 37-year-old South Korean's come-from-behind win over Woods on Sunday was unprecedented in so many ways -- not least the impetus it gives the game across the far-flung Asian continent.
Woods had never lost in the 14 previous majors in which he'd taken a lead into the final round. Yang was never overawed, giving Asians a homegrown men's champion to cheer for rather than rely on familial links with Woods, who has a Thai mother, and Fijian-born Vijay Singh, a major champion of Indian heritage.
"It's a great, great day for Asian golf," Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han told The Associated Press. "Probably our biggest day. It's always been our hope that we will see an Asian player win a major, and that day is here.
"It will provide so much inspiration. Our players have never contended that strong in majors. Maybe top 10 but never really contended. And now we've not only got a winner, but someone who beat Tiger Woods. It was as high-pressure as you can get."
Han said there are a number of players in their early 20s from Thailand, South Korea, India and other Asian countries who are probably more technically sound than their older compatriots were.
"These players will peak in their late 20s, and it was always a case of a longer process for them to mature," Han said. "But this has raised the bar a lot, and Yang's win will provide them with a big mental boost.
"I see a great future ahead for Asian golf."
One of those young players -- Asian Tour rookie Mohammad Siddikur -- recently became the first player from Bangladesh on the Asian Tour. "It's really exciting news to see an Asian winner at a major," Siddikur said. "This is good for Asian Tour players. He has become our pride and joy."
Shane Hahm, who covers sports for Seoul radio station TBS eFM, described it as an historic win for Asia.
"The historical significance is huge, in terms of golf and how it's blooming in Asia, the fastest growing market," he said. "For the first Asian-born player to win ... It's just unbelievable, the way he did it, too -- by beating the No. 1 player in the world."
South Korea's top golf official, Park Sam-koo of the Korea Professional Golfers' Association, told Yang his win "provided our members and junior players with immeasurable and strong pride that they can do it, too."
Max Garske, chief executive of the PGA of Australia, which has ongoing contact with events in South Korea and Asia via the recently formed OneAsia tour, said Yang's win will help nurture the sport in the region.
"It will also provide a huge amount of confidence for Asian male players because it's taken such a long time for them to break through in a major," Garske said. "We need a couple of Asian heroes."
Garske said the Yang's win would no doubt increase the number of regular golfers in Asia.
He said that although Japan, with its single biggest star now 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, has an estimated 15 million golfers and South Korea three million to 3.5 million, most of those golfers play or practice only at driving ranges.
There are about 3,500 golf courses in Japan, where an 18-hole round can cost up to US$500 to play, and just 200 quality courses in South Korea.
In Australia, impact studies show 1.2 million have taken up the sport, but the criteria is that those golfers play at least four rounds a year on a course.
Garske said the biggest room for growth is in China, where the Australian PGA is in the second year of a program with the China Golf Association to train between 5,000 to 10,000 local Chinese coaches.
"They've got about 1.1 million who have memberships at golf courses, and in excess of 350 golf courses," Garske said. "They are growing at about 40 per cent a year, and working very hard on their elite player program. Yang's win will help there as well as everywhere else."
The Asian region will also get a boost when a World Golf Championship event -- the HSBC Champions -- will be played from Nov. 5-8 in Shanghai, with Woods in the field.
China has no regular golfers on the PGA Tour, but has Wu Ashun, Liang Wenchong and Zhang Lianwei among its best male players.
"Korean players represent the emergence of Asian power in golf. Their performance shows that Asians are really suited to playing golf," Yang Jie, director of golf department under the official General Administration of Sports, said in Beijing.
"Y.E. Yang sets an excellent example for Chinese players, showing that if you work hard, you will be rewarded with results."
Se Ri Pak won the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open as a rookie in 1998, among seven South Korean players who have combined to win 11 majors on the LPGA Tour. Yang and K.J. Choi are the only PGA Tour players who learned the game in South Korea before going to the United States.
Jeev Milkha Singh, who finished tied for 67th at the PGA on Sunday, is the first Indian golfer to play at the Masters and qualify for the U.S. Open.
"Golf in Asia has been growing steadily, so to have the guy who finally found a way to beat Tiger on Sunday is so big for the region," said Australian Geoff Ogilvy. "It's hard for us here in the U.S. to imagine the impact this will have."
Joe Steranka, the chief executive of the PGA of America, said: "Earlier this week, I said the addition of golf to the Olympics is the single biggest thing to accelerate the growth of the game. I stand corrected. ... There are now going to be other Asian nations saying, OK, how are we going to prepare our players to go play on the international stage?"'
Teaching professional Peter Heiniger, who was part of an Australian PGA coaching clinic to Beijing earlier this year, agreed the addition of golf at the 2016 Olympics will have a huge impact on the sport in China.
"They are looking for the next step, another level," Heiniger said. "In China, the biggest difficulty has been funding. And now that there is a good chance it will become an Olympic sport, it will help the game even more."
Heiniger says Yang's win, though, will have an immediate impact.
"Everyone in Asia saw what K.J. Choi had done, and he hadn't even won a major," said Heiniger. "I think Yang's win will prove to be huge."