That’s the analogy I used to explain the significance to a friend. Or perhaps it’s like when the US Hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. Maybe you can compare it to how Yao Ming is revered in China and Ichiro in Japan. Whatever. The bottom line is that Y.E. Yang is now a national hero and a household name in Korea. His victory will have a far-reaching impact. It means more than “just” winning the PGA Championship.
Since Sunday, there’s been buzz about what it means for golf as a global sport. Wasn’t this the case already? Well, yes and no. Take a gander at the results — in the top 10, including ties, 9 of the 15 are international players. But there’s never been a strong contingent of Asian-born players on the PGA Tour. That’s about to change.
Enter the Se Ri Pak effect. Remember when she won the ‘98 US Women’s Open? And the unforgettable shot on the 72nd hole where she stood knee deep in a hazard to hit a shot to 10 feet and made the putt to force a playoff? Pak’s win started a revolution and defined a generation for women’s golf. Korean golfers — male or female — will refer back to that moment as the tipping point. Ask any Korean LPGA player what inspired them to take up the game. All of them will say Pak did in some way or another. In the past decade, Asians, particularly Koreans, have taken women’s golf by force — to a point where it’s resented and a centerpiece for controversy.
Golf has already been surging in Asia, particularly in recent years. Without a doubt, fans have looked to the likes of K.J. Choi and Yang as their heroes. Prior to Sunday, Choi, who has 7 career PGA Tour victories, was the most well known Korean in the PGA. His success helped increase the popularity of golf in Korea. Then, of course, the name Tiger Woods transcends national boundaries and his mother is Thai. That’s different, though. Tiger doesn’t really have tangible ties to Asia.
It’s a similar story for Anthony Kim, who is Korean-American, and likely relates more to Western culture. Kevin Na was born in South Korea but is an American citizen. Neither Kim nor Na grew up or played professionally in Korea. In the newest class of young stars, Ryo Ishikawa is a rock star in Japan, but hasn’t done anything noteworthy on the big boys tour yet; same goes for South Korean-Kiwi Danny Lee.
So, in the long term, can Asians consistently be competitive on Tour? Chances are good. There are, like, over a billion people in China alone, and approximately 130 million in Japan and 50 million in South Korea. And, even if it’s a minority, that’s still a lot of people who have caught the golf bug.
Enter the Y.E. Yang effect. He wasn’t simply the first Asian-born male major champion — a pivotal detail is Yang beat Tiger, a feat he hadn’t seemed to fully grasp at his post-victory press conference. When asked about the impact his win would have in Asia, he said:
I hope this win would be as — if not as significant, something quite parallel to an impact both to golf in Korea as well as golf in Asia so that all the young golfers, Korean and Asian, would probably build their dreams and expand their horizons a bit with this win.
How much do you want to bet there are thousands of kiddies making their first swings at this very moment with hopes of becoming the next Y.E. Yang? Take cover for the Asian Invasion…even if it takes a decade.