Posted by: happyfan08 | August 16, 2012

So Yeon Ryu’s Gold Medal Sunday

Last week, the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic returned to the LPGA schedule after a year off in 2011.  The defending champion was Korean star Na Yeon Choi, who defeated three women named Kim – Koreans IK and Song Hee, and Korean American Christina – in a playoff in 2010 to capture that crown.  That result may have been particularly impressive for the Koreans, but it was hardly unusual: since Se Ri Pak first captured the title in Toledo back in 1998, Koreans have won there an amazing eight total times.  Pak alone has captured the crown five times, with Mi Hyun Kim, Eun Jung Yi and Choi capturing the other three titles for the ladies from that country.  Pak is so tied in with the history of this event that she even invited Farr to her Hall of Fame induction dinner in 2007.  (Given the dominance of Korean ladies in Toledo, it’s an interesting coincidence that Farr is best known for appearing in a television show set in Korea during the Korean War.  Still, Farr often jokes that he is known in Korea far more for hosting the tournament that Se Ri Pak has won five times than for M*A*S*H.)

Na Yeon Choi holds the trophy at the 2010 Farr

This year, the event once again saw Korean golfers all over the leaderboard.  Early on, it was promising newcomer Chella Choi who took the lead.  Choi (no relation to defending champ Na Yeon) has had a breakout season in 2012.  She lost in a playoff a few weeks ago at the ManuLife Classic – a playoff that featured three Koreans and Brittany Lang, but was won by the American – and has appeared on leaderboards a few other times.  Choi is 21, and the future looks bright for her indeed.  But this would not be her week; she slowed down in the final two rounds and finished tied for third.

But as she faded somewhat, other Korean stars rose to the occasion.  By the end of the third round, four Korean players were tied for the lead at 11 under par, with two more a shot back tied with Japanese player Mika Miyazato.  One of the four leaders was So Yeon Ryu.  Ryu’s rookie year of 2012 had to that point been fantastic, with seven top tens already, most of those top fives.  Ryu had gained membership on tour thanks to winning the 2011 US Women’s Open.  But she had not won anywhere in the world since that win, more than a year before the Farr.  She was hungry to get her first victory as an LPGA player.

So Yeon Ryu in round 3 of the 2012 Jamie Farr

The other three Korean women tied for the lead were all just as hungry.  IK Kim had lost to Na Yeon Choi in the 2010 Farr playoff, and was trying to return to form after an injury that had derailed her earlier in the year.  Kim’s last win had come in 2010 at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, the tournament where she famously donated her entire champion’s check to charity.  More recently, she had missed a one foot putt on the final hole of the Kraft Nabisco that would have given her the first Major of her career.  The third leader, Jiyai Shin, is an eight time winner who, like Kim, has been dealing with injuries the past few months.  Shin also had not won since late 2010.  Lastly, the woman Ryu had beaten at the 2011 US Women’s Open in a playoff, Hee Kyung Seo, was also the woman she would be paired with again Sunday.  Besides the runner up finish at the Open, Seo had come close to winning at least three other times, most recently at the MaunLife where, like Chella Choi, she had lost in a playoff.

Hee Kyung Seo in round 3 of the 2012 Jamie Farr

Ryu had more to worry about besides those three, naturally.  This was a course where it was quite possible to go low, so even a player four or five shots back could capture the win if she got hot on day four.  Inbee Park, who had just won the previous tour event, the Evian Masters, sat ominously just a shot behind Ryu, as did second round leader Chella Choi.

Ryu’s life journey had definitely taken an amazing turn since she unexpectedly won the Open, becoming the third youngest woman in history to claim the most coveted title in women’s golf.  At the time, she was a full time member of the Korean LPGA tour who had earned an exemption into the Open field by virtue of her fourth place finish on the KLPGA money list in 2010.  She was a full time college student in her Junior year at Yonsei University, who still managed to maintain a highly successful career as a professional golfer on the side.  But with the Open win, she had to decide whether she wanted to accept full LPGA membership in 2012 – which would make finishing her final year of college more challenging – or forego this prize, finish her education, then decide what she wanted to do.  She took the riskier course, joining the LPGA as a rookie this season.

So Yeon Ryu poses with a photo of herself hoisting the 2011 US Women’s Open trophy

If continuing her studies was distracting her, she didn’t show it.  Right from the start of 2012 up until the Farr, she had repeatedly played well.  Back in February, she rocked her first event of the year, the RACV Australian Ladies Masters, by shooting a second round 61 to zoom into the lead.  She struggled to maintain her lead over the next two days and eventually lost by a stroke, but still managed a tie for second place.  The next week at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, her LPGA debut, she again zoomed to the top of the leaderboard, and played in one of the final groups on Sunday. Paired with her old friend/nemesis Seo, she tenaciously hung onto a share of the lead, and looked poised to win her very first event as an LPGA member.  But on the final hole, faced with a twenty foot birdie putt to possibly win, both she and Seo raced their putts too far by the hole, then watched in anguish as they both missed the par saves as well.  Their two bogies led to a six way playoff, eventually won by Jessica Korda.  It was Ryu’s second straight top two finish, but nonetheless a disappointment considering what almost was.

Both Ryu and Seo missed potential tournament winning putts on the final green of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open

Over the next few months, she played well and often found herself on leaderboards, but was not able to get over the hump and get the win.  She had a 4th in her first LPGA tournament on US soil, the RR Donnelly, and after a few so so events, another 4th in Hawaii at the Lotte Championship.  Her next two events were another fourth and a fifth.  She cruised out to a large lead in the Rookie of the Year race.  But as she later admitted, she was feeling pressure to win again, to show that the Open victory was no fluke.

She continued to put up good finishes.  She missed the four way playoff at the Manulife by a single stroke after shooting a final round 64.  Around that time, she also journeyed to the site of the upcoming US Women’s Open, which was to take place at BlackWolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin.  This is, of course, the site of the most famous victory in Korean golf history, where in 1998, 20 year old Se Ri Pak won a 20 hole playoff to electrify her home country.  Pak traveled there with Ryu to meet the press, and even accompanied Ryu  as she played a practice round on the course.  Ryu was thrilled by the chance to hang out with the woman who had inspired her to take up the game way back when.  She was determined to have a good showing in defense of her title.  In the end, she played decently, carding a 14th place that would have been a top ten were it not for a big mistake on the final hole that led to a double bogey.  A good showing, but again not a win.

Ryu and Pak visiting BlackWolf Run during media day in May, 2012

And so, Ryu teed it up on Sunday at the Farr, once again paired with Seo, hoping this time to get the win that had eluded her for more than a year.  The previous evening, she had spoken with a good friend, Yeon Jae Son.  Son is a rhythmic gymnastics star, touted as a possible medalist, who was at that moment in London for the Olympics.  She had managed to make the finals of the individual all-around, and after two of four rounds had been in third place, primed for a medal.  But at that point, she got ahead of herself, thinking too much about the medal, and ended up finishing fifth.  “She said don’t think about winning or the trophy. Just keep concentration on your ball and just thinking about your game,” Ryu later told the press, when talking about their conversation, adding, “It helped me a lot…”

Yeon Jae Son talking to the press after returning from the London Olympics

Ryu got out to a good start, making par on the first hole when had bogied it the other three days, and carding early birdies on the third and fifth holes.  But she also missed makeable short opportunities on three other holes.  By the end of the 8th hole, she held a slim lead, but knew she would have to kick it into another gear if she were to win.

So Yeon concentrates during round 4

On the ninth hole, she found that next level.  She made a longish putt for birdie to move to 14 under par, and that gave her the confidence she needed to really go to town.  For the next five holes, she was unstoppable, knocking one approach after another close to the hole, then draining the birdies.  All told, she made six straight birdies, and by the time she made par on 15, she had moved to 19 under par, and was thoroughly in control of the tournament.  “I got par (on 15), but it felt like a bogey”, she said, reflecting on how impressive her birdie run had seemed to her.

For good measure, she punched a lovely pitch shot past the hole on 18 and watched as it snapped back to about two feet for her ninth birdie of the day.  She drained it for a blistering 62 – nine under par (the Farr course plays to a par 71) – and finished a scintillating 20 under total, seven shots ahead of the second place golfer.  At last, she had her first win as an LPGA member.

So Yeon during round 4

The 62 was the lowest final round in Farr tournament history, three shots better than the next best.  She became only the fifth golfer in LPGA history to shoot a 62 in the final round of a tournament and win the title: the other four who did that are all Hall of Famers.  The win also increased her lead in the Rookie of the Year race to more than 400 points over second place Lexi Thompson.  But most importantly, it has renewed her confidence.  “I’m just really, really happy, and I’m so glad to win the tournament”, she said.  “So I really wanted to make a win as soon as possible, and today I made it…This is just my turning point. I just want to make a lot of wins again”.

So Yeon and her Farr trophy

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Responses

  1. Another great piece. I appreciate what you do to put a face to these fantastic golfers. Keep up the good work


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