The 2011 US Women’s Open, contested last week at the Broadmoor course in Colorado Springs, Colorado, turned out to be a history making event. For the first time ever at this tournament, the new three hole playoff system was used; and that playoff featured, also for the first time ever, no American, but rather two Korean ladies vying for the biggest prize in women’s golf. What made the playoff even more scintillating was that this was no ordinary random grouping of two talented Korean golfers. Rather, the two who clashed for the trophy, Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu, have been longtime rivals who have duked it out over a period of several years on the Korean LPGA tour. Now their rivalry was renewed on the biggest stage of all, with the young Ryu coming out on top.
Hee Kyung Seo, who turned 25 during the Open, had joined the LPGA tour in 2011 as a rookie. She had earned her tour card the previous year by winning an LPGA event, the Kia Classic, which she was invited to play by the sponsors. Ryu, a 21 year old college student and professional golfer simultaneously, also can avoid going to LPGA qualifying school thanks to her win in Colorado. Whether she will take advantage of the card to join the tour as a rookie next year remains to be seen, but if she does, fans of this dynamic duo can doubtless look forward to many more exciting battles between the two friendly foes for years to come.
Each golfer arrived in the professional ranks in different ways. Seo’s career gestated much more slowly than Ryu’s. She joined the KLPGA in 2006, but during her first two and a half seasons, she could manage no better finish than third. Frustrated, she spent some time during the summer break working with her good friend, KLPGA superstar Jiyai Shin. What she saw changed her life. Seo realized that Shin spent much more time working on her game than she did, particularly her short game. Seo watched, learned, absorbed. When the season started up again in late summer, she was ready. She won the very first event after the break, the SBS Open, beating a field that included Shin and US Women’s Open champ Inbee Park. She would go on to win two more consecutive events and 6 total in 2008. But though Seo had been brilliant, she still toiled in the shadow of the unstoppable Shin, who won that year’s Player of the Year award.
Meanwhile, a 17 year old named So Yeon Ryu turned pro and joined the KLPGA that season. Ryu had been one of the strongest amateur golfers in Korea before that. Her most notable accomplishment came when she won the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games (as a 16 year old). She beat second place player Mika Miyazato by nine strokes (interestingly, Miyazato is now an LPGA player who also finished in the top ten at this year’s Open). It took Ryu almost no time to make a splash as a professional, winning her first KLPGA title at the first event of the year. Although she was impressive the rest of the season, she would not win again, and in fact lost the Rookie of the Year award that season to her fellow Asian Games teammate and bronze medalist He Yong Choi.
Shin won three LPGA events in 2008 on top of all her wins on the KLPGA tour, and so in 2009 she joined the LPGA tour as a rookie. That left a gap at the top of the league, one Seo was eager to fill. But when Ryu gutted out a phenomenal win at the Doosan Match Play tournament early in the season, she started a rapid climb from promising young player to superstar. She won three of the next four events to vault to the top of all the league standings, ahead of Seo. And thus was born a rivalry for the ages.
The rest of the season, the two battled for supremacy on tour. Seo was not about to roll over and play dead. She would go on to win the final two Majors of the season and three Majors out of four, while finishing second in the other one! Meanwhile Ryu, for all her accomplishments, was not able to win even a single Major, and in fact still to this date has not won a Major on the KLPGA tour (though she has come close, losing a playoff to Jiyai Shin at the 2008 Korean Women’s Open). In the end, Seo, with five wins, trumped Ryu with four, and won the Player of the Year award. The first round of their rivalry went to the Supermodel of the Fairways, Hee Kyung Seo.
The 2010 season promised to be more of the same, and in fact, at the first event of the year, Seo and Ryu ended up in a playoff for the title. Seo had the lead and seemed ready to win but, much like at last week’s Open, Ryu came from behind, caught her, and forced a playoff. Three holes later, Ryu won to draw first blood in the second act of their rivalry.
But amazingly, neither player would win an event for the rest of the season. Bo Mee Lee wound up as the Player of the year, though both Seo and Ryu had decent years. Ryu managed 14 top tens, including three seconds, and finished fourth on the money list. Seo earned 12 top tens and finished 6th on the money list. The second round of the rivalry thus went to Ryu. Well, sort of…
In this case, what was happening in Korea only told part of the story. Sure, Seo was having an off year in Korea, but she was playing quite well internationally. Ryu was still more interested in playing in Korea, although she occasionally ventured abroad in 2010 (one notable finish was a tie for 25th at that year’s US Women’s Open, her first time playing that event). But Seo, after a top five finish at the ANZ Ladies Masters, was invited to play the LPGA’s Kia Classic in March. Amazingly, she not only won the event, she trounced a field containing almost all the top women golfers in the world. Just like that, Hee Kyung Seo had earned the right to play on the LPGA, and after some soul searching, she decided to join the tour as a rookie in 2011. So once again, Seo had managed to get the better of Ryu by becoming the first of the two to win on the LPGA tour.
In 2011, Seo was having a mediocre rookie season leading up to the US Women’s Open. She had managed one top ten, and was leading in the Rookie of the Year standings, but in general was not playing at the level she had hoped for. She had even been forced to qualify for the US Women’s Open at a sectional, which she tellingly won. But despite that, her mood had gotten so sour by mid-June that her parents took her on a vacation to Niagara Falls as a sort of crisis intervention. There, while riding the boat the Maid of the Mists, in the shadow of Horseshoe Falls , they had a heart to heart with their daughter, telling her that she was number one to them no matter what, and that she should simply trust herself. The advice worked far better than anyone could have anticipated.
Meanwhile, Ryu was struggling in Korea. She had not won anywhere in the world since that playoff victory over Seo, and though she nearly won the first KLPGA event of the season, she soon found herself struggling to even make top tens. But just when it looked like she was in real trouble, she pulled herself up in a spectacular way. At the Lotte Cantata Open, she was four shots back after two rounds. But in round three she absolutely blitzed the field, shooting a 64 to cruise to her first win in a year and a half. Her confidence was back, and just in time for the US Women’s Open, which she would play by virtue of her top five finish on the KLPGA money list the previous season.
This year’s US Women’s Open turned into a nightmare of weather delays right from the first day. At times, players would go a day and a half without hitting a shot; at other times, they would play two rounds in a single day. A player never knew how long she would be out there before the next warning siren would halt play. Add onto that the fact that the Broadmoor is at high altitude, meaning thin air that would tax fitness under normal conditions, let alone when one was playing 36 holes without a significant break.
After two rounds, Seo was eight shots out of the lead at 3 over par, while Ryu was 6 back at 1 over. They were both in great position to get top tens, but it didn’t look likely that they would be contending for the trophy. But as the third round started Saturday afternoon, the leaders faded quickly, and both Ryu and Seo played very well, vaulting up the leaderboard in the process.
Seo wound up shooting her final two rounds on Sunday, and was absolutely brilliant in both. She produced a 68 in round three, took a short break, then shot a 31 on the front nine of her fourth round. That amazing stretch included four straight birdies to end her first nine holes. Just like that, the Supermodel of the Fairways had taken the lead at 5 under par, an 8 shot improvement over her round 2 score.
Ryu was keeping pace. After a so so round of 74 to open her week, she shot a 69 in round two, then followed that with another 69 in round 3. This positioned her at one under par, which tied her for the lead after three rounds. Seo’s run on her first nine holes of round 4, however, allowed her to take over the lead and blow past her rival (and everybody else).
Seo’s back nine was considerably dodgier than her front nine, but she hung in there despite troubles. After a bogey on the 10th hole, a weather delay allowed her to regroup. When she returned, she managed pars to keep her score at 4 under. Her main opponents like Cristie Kerr and Angela Stanford struggled, falling down the leaderboard. But Ryu continued to remain close.
On the par 5 17th hole, Seo’s group was told that they needed to catch up with the group ahead of them, and they began to sprint down the fairway to avoid a slow play penalty. It was getting dark, and the wind was kicking up. Once on the green, Seo barely missed a birdie putt and had two feet left for par. But whether it was the darkness, the wind, or the running, or perhaps just the pressure, Seo lipped out what should have been a routine par, her first three putt of the entire week. Her score fell to 3 under, just a shot ahead of Ryu. It would prove to be a very costly error.
Seo parred the final hole and got into the clubhouse just before play was halted due to darkness. The remaining players would have to finish their rounds on Monday. The situation was great for Seo: only three players could possibly catch her. Kerr would need to birdie her two remaining holes, while Stanford would need three birdies in her final four. But Ryu just needed one birdie to tie in her final three holes, which included a par 5. She was the most dangerous threat to her old rival’s chances to win the biggest prize in women’s golf.
As it turned out, neither Kerr nor Stanford was able to catch Seo. Ryu, meanwhile, hit a disastrous tee shot on her very first hole of the day, the par 3 16th. Her ball went into a bunker. Not only was she right up against the lip of the sand trap, she was also short sided. It looked like her chances to win were done before they began, but Ryu, standing with one foot outside the trap, hit a miraculous sand shot to a foot for an easy par.
On the next hole, Ryu reached the green in three shots, leaving herself a fifteen footer for birdie. This would seem to be her best chance to make the birdie she needed, but her putt burned the edge, and though she made par, she was still a shot behind Seo. She would now have to birdie 18, one of the harder holes of the week. She hit a perfect drive, but it was her second shot that was, without question, the shot of the tournament. She produced a gorgeous iron that curved sweetly onto the green, where it trickled to within five feet of the flag. Even though she was close, however, she still was left with a nasty breaking putt for birdie. She had to wait eight minutes while her playing partners finished, but finally, the chance had come. She gathered herself and hit a perfect putt into the center of the cup. On the final hole of regulation, So Yeon Ryu had caught Hee Kyung Seo; there would be a second career playoff between the two. Only this time, the stakes were much higher.
In a lot of ways, Seo got the short end of the stick in the playoff. Having finished her round on Sunday, she would be entering the playoff without having hit a shot in competition all day. Her opponent, meanwhile, had played the exact same holes less than an hour before. But sometimes life isn’t fair, and Seo had had a bit of advantage finishing on Sunday, too, in that she was able to complete her round while still playing her best.
Ryu conducted a thoroughly charming interview with NBC following her round, then proceeded to sign autographs and take photos with fans. Johnny Miller, commentating for NBC, was very impressed with the attitudes of both players, and opined that he had never seen so many smiles before a playoff for a Major championship. He said that these two ladies were an example to professionals everywhere in the way they enjoyed the game while still being fierce rivals.
Ryu bowed to Seo as she reached the practice range, and their shared a laugh. Rivals they may be, but they are also good friends. About 30 minutes later, the playoff started on hole 16, the same hole Ryu had started her day on. Seo teed off first, and both players hit nice iron shots to about 15 feet. Neither made her birdie, however, and so the playoff continued on the par 5 17th hole with the two players still tied.
This hole was playing 600 yards long, but thanks to the high altitude, which allows the ball to travel farther than usual, the hole was still one where birdie was doable. But essential to success on this hole was a good drive, and it was here that the wheels came off for Seo. She hit her drive right into a fairway bunker, and was left with her ball virtually against the lip, forcing her to hit a high lofted club to get out. Ryu, meanwhile, hit a perfect drive, and followed with a perfect second to 129 yards.
Seo got her ball out of the trap, but could not reach the green in three shots. She hit her third shot to the right into some more rough. Ryu then hit her third to about six feet. Seo’s fourth shot got onto the green, but still farther from the hole than Ryu’s ball. It was crucial Seo make the 20 foot par save; if Ryu made birdie and Seo bogey, it was probably all over. In fact, that is exactly what happened: Seo’s par save just missed going in and she made bogey, while Ryu dunked her putt for a birdie 4. With one hole to play, Ryu now had a prohibitive two shot advantage.
Now hitting off the tee first, Ryu’s drive found the center of the fairway on 18, as did Seo’s. Seo was farther away and hit first; her approach, however, was low, and ran through the green, nestling up against the fringe in the back. Ryu then proceeded to hit an even better approach here than she had when she played the hole an hour earlier, getting her ball to about four feet from the flag. Seo realized at that point that all hope was lost, but gamely stroked her long putt to tap in range for an easy par. Ryu made the birdie, and the Open crown was hers.
Growing up, one of Ryu’s biggest idols was Korean golf legend Se Ri Pak. Pak now led a group of golfers that included 2009 US Women’s Open champ Eun Hee Ji onto the green, where they proceeded to drench Ryu in champagne. Ryu later called it ‘incredible’ that her hero was there to celebrate her win and give her ‘power’ during the playoff.
Seo was sad but overall satisfied with her week. She had gone from near despair to near victory in the space of one tournament, and eagerly looked forward to the rest of the year. She told the press that the par miss on 17 on Sunday, which had allowed Ryu into the playoff in the first place, was the critical mistake for her. But considering it was her only three putt of the week, she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. Her game, from top to bottom, had been virtually immaculate, and no one can be expected to get through an Open without the occasional hiccup.
As for So Yeon Ryu, Seo’s great rival, her life has changed forever. She has some choices to make. Will she do what Seo and Shin did before her and opt to join the LPGA next year? Or will she stay in Korea to complete her education (she is a junior in college there)? Making the jump to the US is a big choice, especially for a woman who is still just 21 years old (making her the third youngest winner of the event ever, behind only fellow Koreans Pak and Inbee Park). And if she comes, she will be joining the league with more notoriety than any Korean since Shin, so the pressure will be on. In the past few years, the US Women’s Open winners from Korea have at times struggled in the months following their wins. Inbee Park took more than a year to get back to her top level, and Eun Hee Ji is still trying to get another top ten on tour since her Open victory. But Ryu seems singularly equipped to handle those kinds of expectations. As Johnny Miller said, she has a wonderful attitude, and will most likely face whatever challenges arise with a big smile and a lot of positive energy. No doubt when she does arrive, her biggest rival Seo will be there to make sure she stays on her toes!!