SAN FRANCISCO | In the fall of 1968, a boy named Yang Chih-Yuan was born in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei. Ten years later, he emigrated to the States with his mother and younger brother. After living in Los Angeles for a spell, the family moved to San Jose, Calif. Eventually they all took American names. The mother, who had worked as a professor of English and drama in Taiwan and began teaching English as a second language when she arrived in America, became Lily and the youngest boy, Ken. As for the eldest, he decided to go by Jerry. His father had passed away when he was only 2 years old, so it was up to Lily to earn a living and raise the boys.
Jerry Yang went to public school in San Jose and then to Stanford University, where he earned first a B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering. He was working toward a Ph.D in 1995 when he and a classmate, David Filo, interrupted their studies to start a directory of internet sites called Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web. In time, the founders changed the name of the concern to Yahoo! and then set about making it one of the biggest and most successful tech companies in the world as they also made themselves wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
Yang played tennis in high school. It was not until he attended Stanford that he came to golf. It took a while for the game to take hold. Once it did, the sport became an important part of his life, as a form of recreation and relaxation and also as an effective business tool. Today, he carries a single-digit handicap and tees it up as often as work and family allows, whether in weekend games with his golf buddies or in the pro-ams he occasionally enters, like the AT&T at Pebble Beach and the Dunhill Links in Scotland.
“Golf has come to be very important to me,” says the 50-year-old Yang, who belongs to many of the best clubs in the land. “I have made some great friends through the game, and met so many great people. I love the camaraderie and competition, the sportsmanship, too. Golf is so spiritual yet so intellectual.
“It teaches you a lot about yourself, and others, and there is nothing quite like the pleasure of playing with a foursome of good friends.”
Yang served as chief executive of Yahoo, from 2007 to 2009, and left in 2012 to start AME Cloud Ventures, which invests in start-up technology companies. He relishes the opportunities that business gives him to work with some of the brightest young minds who, in his words, “are trying to change the world and make it better,” as he raises his two daughters with his wife, Akiko Yamazaki, whom he met while at Stanford.
Yang has also found time to give back to the university that gave him so much. He was on Stanford’s board of trustees for 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, and served for a stretch as that body’s vice chairman.
He recently took time to answer a few questions from GGP+:
When did you start playing golf?
Golf was not accessible to us as kids. It was not something we thought about. I played tennis in high school, in East San Jose, and was good enough to be recruited by a couple of Division III colleges. But I ended up going to Stanford, and it was there that I started playing golf. I’d go down to the range at the Stanford Golf Course with David Filo and hit balls on occasion. We were complete hacks. We were terrible.
When did you start to get serious about the game?
One day, when I was hitting balls at Stanford, I ran into George Roberts (one of the principals of the investment firm, Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts). We got to talking, and he told me that I needed to start taking the game seriously and explained how golf was a game for life. The next day he sent me a set of Ben Hogan Apex irons and several books, one of which was Ben Hogan’s, Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. That started the journey. George was the instigator.
How did you decide on Stanford?
My mother was a single parent. I liked how close it was to home and how it made it possible for me to go see her. Also, at Stanford, I did not have to decide on my major until my junior year. That gave me a chance to sort things out.
How and why did you decide to get into electrical engineering?
It seemed like the best degree to get if I wanted to make money after college so my mother did not have to pay for things anymore. She thought engineering was the way to go, and that is what I planned to do after high school. But I could not get a decent job once I earned my B.S. – at least one that I wanted to do. So, I went back for my M.S. and then started working toward a Ph.D. But I dropped that idea when we started Yahoo!.
Did you pick up golf quickly?
Not really. I was bad in the beginning, and then one day I was hit in the head with a ball on the range at Stanford. I was too cheap in those days to buy tees, so I would go out and pick mine up on the ground in front of me after hitting a drive. Well, one time, a guy shanked a ball, and it hit me right in the head. There was blood everywhere, an ambulance came and I thought that that was the end of me and golf.
But you never gave up on the game, right?
I came right back. I loved playing. I loved practicing, and I wanted to get good. I played every Sunday for a while, usually in the same group and with the first or second tee time. We bet a little bit, and I lost all the time. I remember pulling out a few bills one time and saying, ‘Nobody beats Jerry Yang 75 times in a row.’ But I got better. By the time I played in my first AT&T in 2001 I was a 17 handicap. Five years later, I was down to an 11 or 12. And last summer, I got all the way down to a 3.5 index, which was my lowest ever. I am back up to a 6.9 index, and my goal is to be a competitive 5 handicap, and to be able to play this game at a relatively high level most of the time.
How did you get better?
I played a lot. I practiced a lot. I took a lot of lessons, and I had a lot of great mentors, like Doug Fitzgerald, the longtime professional at Stanford, and Josh Zander, who has played on the PGA Tour and was one of my freshman dorm mates back in 1986. Actually, I cannot imagine anyone I haven’t taken a lesson from, and my friends often joke when they look at my swing, saying: “That’s what $2 million will buy you.”
How often do you play and practice?
I try to play once a week and hit balls two or three times a week. I do most of my practicing at Stanford. The facility there is first-rate. I have been a sponsor for the men’s and women’s teams for some time and one of the benefits of that is I get to practice at their training facility, which is spectacular.
But you get more than just a good place to hit balls out of your involvement with Stanford golf, right?
Of course. I am part of a real communal effort to help the golf program. I really like that. The kids are amazing people and amazing golfers. They’re pretty serious about their studies, too, and we have to talk to them sometimes about playing and practicing a bit more, and studying less, so they get better at golf.
It seems they are following your advice.
Conrad Ray has done a great job running the team, and we were very excited when the men won the NCAAs last year. That made them national champions for the ninth time. And Conrad was Coach of the Year. I also love that Isaiah Salinda and Brandon Wu were both part of the winning Walker Cup team. The women have been doing well, too. They were national champs in 2015 and have finished no worse than tied for fifth in the NCAAs every year since then.
Much has been written about artificial intelligence and the different ways in which technology can improve our abilities as golfers and our enjoyment of the game. What is your take on that?
The possibilities are almost endless. For one thing, the day is coming where laser-rangefinder technology will be made available in a pair of sunglasses. And advances in simulators will be such that playing a course like Pebble Beach in your garage or den will really feel like Pebble. There are also those working on compression sleeves or the kind of “haptic suits” made to help the disabled walk in a way that helps a person swing like a tour professional. And I have heard of one company that is researching tremors, a study from which technology that would help people overcome the yips might well emerge.
What has been your best round to date?
I shot even par at the Cal Club in South San Francisco around Labor Day in 2017. It was near 100 degrees, and I walked and carried my own bag, I was 2 under on the 17th tee and then limped in, bogey-bogey.
Who is the most interesting person outside of golf with whom you have played?
President Bush 41, at Pinehurst during a First Tee event in the early 2000s. I can remember almost every hole that day and the stories that he told, and thinking of his family and its involvement in the game, from the Walker Cup (which is named after the president’s grandfather, George Herbert Walker, who was serving as president of the USGA at the time of the competition’s creation) to the Presidents Cup (for which 41 served as honorary chairman in 1996).
And what about a tour professional?
Ernie Els would be one. We’ve played in the AT&T the last couple of years. He has had a brilliant golf career but has also lived a very full life off the course as well. I would say Colin Montgomerie, too. He told great stories when we played together. And Tiger. I played with him at the Deutsche Bank Pro-Am in 2009, when he was at the height of his powers, and that was a lot of fun.
Your favorite course?
Pebble Beach. It would be the course I played if I had only one round of golf to play. I’d want to get an early morning tee time, though, and I’d walk it if I could.
Your favorite golf hole?
The fifth at Pebble. It’s the site of my only hole-in-one. But the seventh at Pebble is a close second, and during last year’s AT&T, I hit the pin there.
What about a favorite golf tournament?
The AT&T, with the Dunhill Links a close second. And in addition to the golf, the courses and the competition, one of the things I really like about the AT&T is what we are able to do from a charity standpoint. I sit on the board of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which is the host organization for the event, and it donates well over $10 million a year to local charities.
What golf course or golf destination do you most want to visit?
I would like to play in the British Isles more. Though I have played in the Dunhill Links and around St. Andrews, I have never played in Ireland. I have not been to Australia either. Or New Zealand. And I would like to play all of Mike Keiser’s courses.
How would you describe your tastes as a golfer?
I like places with a lot of history. And I consider myself to be very much a traditionalist. But I am by no means a golf snob. To be sure, I do appreciate a great club. Like San Francisco Golf Club, where I am a member. I love the camaraderie, the competitions, the sportsmanship. But I also love public courses. One of the reasons that Pebble is my favorite is that anyone can get on there.
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