South Korean golfer So Yeon Ryu has come a long way since her days as a musician
Ryu became the fifth player from her country to win the U.S. Women's Open in 2011
She will tee off at this week's 68th edition of the tournament in New York state
The 22-year-old was named the LPGA's Rookie of the Year for 2012
So Yeon Ryu was seven years old when she gave her first violin recital. She was in love with music, but at age 12 she had to make a tough decision.
“I started playing golf in elementary school. One day my golf coach took the team to a golf course and I fell in love with it. I loved walking the course and being out in nature,” recalls Ryu, now 22.
She started to notice several professional golfers, like fellow South Korean Grace Park. “She was fashionable, powerful and beautiful,” Ryu says.
Her golf was getting so much better that her mother asked what everyone had been thinking: “Do you want to become a violinist or a professional golfer?”
The moment of truth
“It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. I always wanted to become violinist,” Ryu acknowledges.
By that time, she already had a role model: a girl who played on the elite U.S.-based LPGA Tour, and who, at age 20, became the first South Korean to claim a major title: Se Ri Pak.
“She is a great trailblazer for all Korean golfers. She played super great on the LPGA and because of that we could dream about playing on the world stage,” Ryu says.
“But, this is not only her influence, we must be thankful to Grace Park, and Mi-Hyun Kim and other first generation Korean players on the LPGA.”
With her mind solely on golf, Ryu informed her family about her decision to put the violin to one side, though her mother was not convinced.
“‘Really? No violin?’ My mom was so disappointed with my decision because everybody said I had a talent for music. I think my mom enjoyed choosing my recital dresses and having me perform on stage.”
Waking up early for practice was one of the toughest things in Ryu’s new life. Little by little she got used to it and during the transition she discovered that her musical background would be very helpful.
As a junior golfer, she had some trouble with her swing but her shots were good enough. “My swing tempo was consistently well and I think I got my good tempo from music,” she says.
In 2006, at age 16, Ryu represented South Korea in the Asian Games in Qatar and won gold in the individual and team events.
Having impressed as an amateur, Ryu turned professional at the end of the following year and joined the KLPGA, the Korean women’s tour.
She won her first tournament as a KLPGA member, triumphing by four strokes at the Sports Seoul Open in April 2008.
Her first winner’s check brought her back to her first love – she bought a violin for her sister, who had decided to pursue music as a career.
The 2009 season would be even better for Ryu. Aged just 19, she won five times, earned over $500,000 and finished second in the Player of the Year race.
But the real breakthrough came in 2011, at the most prestigious tournament in the female game: the U.S. Women’s Open.
After a shaky opening round that put her six strokes off the pace, Ryu shot 69 on Friday and Saturday to share the lead going into the final day.
The tournament ended in a showdown between Ryu and her rival Hee Kyung Seo – who had beaten her to the KLPGA player of the year award two years earlier.
This time it was Ryu who prevailed. She forced a playoff with a birdie on the last regulation green before, after three extra holes, becoming just the fifth South Korean to win the major.
A sixth, Na Yeon Choi, will defend her title at Sebonak Golf Club in Southampton, New York, this week.
Ryu emulated her hero Pak – who 13 years earlier became the first Korean to win it – and, along with the winner’s check of $585,000, it prompted her to make the next big step in her career.
“I transferred from the KLPGA to the LPGA and people started to recognize me,” she says. “I moved to the U.S. and I am now based in California. That was a pretty big change, relocating to another country.”
A keen student
Despite moving, Ryu continued studying physical education at Yonsei University, a private institution and the oldest of her country, and graduated in February this year with a bachelor’s degree in sports management..
“I could not and would not trade my university life for anything. It was such a great time for me,” she says.
“Sometimes I couldn’t sleep during a tournament because of assignments. I had to wake up early if I wanted to practice before going to class. Physically, it was a hard job but it was worth it.”
That work ethic goes some way to explaining the success of Korean women golfers and Ryu is now hoping that she can inspire new generations of young players like Pak and Kim did for her.
“I’d love to be someone’s role model. I want to share my experience and heart,” says the golfer, who finished second behind compatriot and close friend Inbee Park at this season’s opening major, the Kraft-Nabisco Championship in April,.
“I would like to donate to poor people or junior golfers. I really want to support young golfers, not as an instructor but as a manager.”
The best decision
Ryu’s determination at age 12 has led her to become one of the best players in women’s golf; she currently sits fifth in the Rolex world rankings, just behind Choi, while Park is No. 1 after also winning this month’s LPGA Championship.
Last weekend the two friends battled for victory at the NW Arkansas Championship event, with Park beating Ryu in a playoff to claim her fifth win this season.
“Inbee and I practice together a lot so when we are standing at the 18th hole, it feels like just a practice round,” Ryu told reporters. “I wasn’t really nervous. Two players cannot be champion, so she deserved it.”
Ryu was named 2012’s LPGA Rookie of the Year, having won the 11th title of her pro career by a massive seven shots at the Jamie Farr Toldeo Classic.
Her love for music is still alive, and Ryu acknowledges that it “is too hard” to even think of trading her accomplishments in golf for a night as concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic or Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Her mother, who once was not satisfied with her daughter’s decision, is now “so happy that I am a professional golfer.”
And it was from her mom that she received the advice that has shaped her career: “Enjoy your life.”