For most of the past four years, the face of Korean Golf has been Inbee Park, the Hall of Famer who time and again has won important tournaments and postseason awards on the LPGA tour, while consistently being among the top ranked golfers in the world. But somewhat obscured by the glow of Park’s brilliance was another golfer, herself one of the very best in the world. Time and again this golfer, So Yeon Ryu, notched top tens, top fives and runner-up finishes, but wins were few and far between. Consistent she certainly was, but as she passed her 26th birthday and fifth complete season on the LPGA, the question persisted: would she ever rise to the top and make her own history? Or would she continue to be the Scottie Pippen obscured by Inbee Park’s Michael Jordan?
From the time she joined the LPGA tour in 2012, So Yeon has been one of the most consistent players on tour. In just her rookie year alone she notched 16 top tens, tied for the most on tour that year (and 12 of those were top fives!). But she only had one win, and one more in 2014, and after that, nothing. Combined with the 2011 US Women’s Open win that earned her a tour card, she had just three wins to show after five years of tour life.
From joining the tour in 2012 to the end of last season, Ryu amassed an incredible record and quite a healthy bank account as well. She had a total of 62 top tens, 44 of which were top fives. She managed 11 top tens in Majors, including several second place finishes, but no wins. Her last missed cut was at the 2014 Evian Championship, the longest run of consecutive cuts made on the tour right now. And she only missed the cut that time because she accidentally damaged her putter when slamming it against her foot, and was disqualified for using “altered” equipment.
But for all her success, she only managed two wins during that same span. That is less than five percent of her top fives ending up in wins. If she had even managed to win once in every five times she finished in the top five, she would have notched 8 wins in that span.
Finally, at the end of 2015, So Yeon had had enough. She felt a change was in order. She asked her caddie to find a new coach for her, and he recommended Cameron McCormick, famous for being the coach of PGA star Jordan Spieth. Ryu even relocated to Dallas so she could be closer to him while they worked on her swing.
So Yeon had a good season in 2016, but not good enough to earn her the ranking necessary to get her on the Olympic team, which had been one of her primary goals for the year. But slowly the swing changes began to bear fruit. She managed top tens in four of the year’s Majors and an 11th place in the fifth. At the year’s final Major, the Evian, she was especially impressive. She made only a single bogey all week, finishing tied for second beyond record-breaking In Gee Chun.
As the year came to a close, she caught fire in a big way. She finished tied for 5th in Malaysia and tied for 3rd in Japan. But it was at the year’s final tournament, the CME Tour Championship, where she really excelled. She found herself chasing British youngster Charlie Hull most of the week, but finally caught her on the 16th hole of the final round. On the 17th hole, a par five, she hit a perfect drive, then striped her second shot straight down the fairway.
Alas, her shot ended up in a bunker, right up against a six-foot tall vertical face. Had her ball ended up three feet longer, she would have had an eagle chance. Had it been three feet shorter, she would have had a routine bunker shot. But from where she was, she could do almost nothing.
She wound up with a bogey and another runner-up finish.
So Yeon hit the off-season training with more determination than ever, and when she came out in 2017, she was as fit as she had ever been, and ready to hunt for that next win. Every week she played, she found herself somewhere near the lead; in fact, in her first four starts, she had two runner ups, a fourth and a seventh. She was at the top of the league in money earned even without a win, top in scoring average, and top in greens in regulation. Yet she still wasn’t winning.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. At the Honda, her first second place finish, she could do nothing to stop Amy Yang, who played the best tournament she had played in a year. At the Kia, she ran into another buzzsaw Korean, Mirim Lee. And at the other two events, she did not play well enough at the end to get into the hunt, despite her great placings.
(So Yeon with Amy Yang in Thailand this year)
Still she was undeterred. She was riding a string of seven straight top tens, including three second places, stretching back to October, 2016. She was now the top ranked Korean in the world, moving to third to top her friend Chun. She was now pinning her hopes on taking the dive into Poppie’s Pond at the year’s first Major, the ANA Inspiration.
But that tournament generally favors long hitters, and despite playing well, after three rounds of tough battling she was still three shots behind long bomber Lexi Thompson. Fate seemed to have a sense of humor, putting her in the third to last group on Sunday paired with her old friend Inbee Park. But though they both played well on the front nine, they were not able to put a dent into Thompson’s lead.
Then one of the most bizarre rules incidents of all time happened, and everything changed. A viewer emailed the LPGA, informing them that Thompson had not placed her ball properly on the green after picking it up before a short par putt the previous day. Misplacing a putt is a two-stroke penalty, but if it happens in a concluded round, that requires an additional two-stroke penalty for signing an incorrect score card for that round. Thompson was notified of the four-stroke penalty after she completed the 12th hole on Sunday, and just like that, she fell back to the field and found herself in a pitched battle with Ryu, Inbee, Suzann Pettersen and Minjee Lee for the title.
When Ryu has been in contention to win in the past, she has often folded under the pressure. Inbee, meanwhile, usually gets better, and that’s just what happened at the ANA. With three holes to play, she made birdie on 16 and 17 to move into a tie for the lead with Pettersen, Thompson and Ryu. Ryu was about to watch her friend win again while she once again had to settle for a strong finish but no trophy.
But this time, things turned out differently. So Yeon dug deep and reached the green on the par 5 18th hole in 2 shots. Inbee got there in three. Ryu had a fantastically tough chip shot facing her, and executed it majestically, getting her ball to within five feet. Park, meanwhile, had a ten footer for birdie to take the lead. The exact kind of putt that Park seems to drop almost every time she needs to. But not this time. Her putt barely scraped by the hole, but did not drop, and she wound up with par. Ryu than stepped up and made the birdie to take the lead and eliminate her friend. For once, it would be Inbee on the sidelines cheering for So Yeon.
(Above, So Yeon makes a tough chip look easy on the final hole of the ANA Inspiration)
Thompson, meanwhile, rallied hard behind them, driving the crowd into fits of ecstasy. They were already on her side before to be sure; but since the penalty, they tried everything they could to inspire her to come back and win. She and Pettersen got to the green on 18, but though Thompson missed an eagle for the win, she made the short birdie to tie Ryu. Pettersen was not able to follow suit, setting up a playoff between So Yeon and Thompson.
So Yeon finally had a great chance to win a Major, but she was facing a crowd heavily biased against her. Nonetheless, on the playoff hole, she hit a perfect drive, while Thompson put hers in the rough and had to punch out. Ryu then had 221 yards to the flag over water. She hit her shot, cleared the water, and watched on pins and needles while the ball rolled towards the water on the side of the green. Thankfully, it stopped short. But many of the people in the crowd showed a regrettable classlessness by openly rooting for her ball to roll into the drink. Even Cristie Kerr, rooting greenside for her friend Thompson, later commented negatively about the unfortunate turn the fan cheering was taking.
So Yeon had a chip to win, but just missed. Now it was Thompson’s turn, but she left her birdie putt short. So Ryu had a five footer for the win. She had often missed this kind of putt in the past. But not this time. She drained it with authority, and nearly collapsed from the release of emotion afterwards. Inbee and MJ Hur gave her a well-deserved champagne bath a few minutes later. A few minutes after that, she jumped into the pond with her mom, sister, agent and caddie, her second career Major in hand.
The tough stuff was just beginning for her. Thousands of fans were infuriated by the result and spammed her Instagram and twitter accounts with nasty comments. Many ridiculously suggested that her win was tainted, and that she should have conceded the win to Thompson. Ludicrous. Thompson’s penalty was by the book. If the LPGA had allowed her to get away with her indiscretion once they had learned of it, that would have sent the terrible message that popular players are above the rules. And imagine if So Yeon had in fact conceded to Thompson – not only would Thompson have hated to win that way, it would have put a permanent stain on women’s golf: players should always play to win, even if they get to that point through an unfortunate controversy. No, So Yeon had no choice, just like the other women in contention: she had to try everything she could to win. And finally, after two and a half years, win she did. A Major, and no asterisk needed. It was fully earned.
So Yeon Ryu rose to second in the world thanks to her win, and now leads the tour money list, Player of the Year, scoring average and greens in regulation stats. Can she keep it up all year? Given how consistent she is, I have to think her next goal will be to win several more tournaments and at last live up to the potential she has always had. Congratulations to her!