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Striking Balance Begets Ryu’s Success

by Lewine Mair - April 17, 2017

So Yeon Ryu is far too philosophical a citizen to brood on how Lexi Thompson’s four-shot penalty stole some of her headlines at the recent ANA Inspiration. What is so different about this 26-year-old South Korean is that she is not just wrapped up in her own game; she is captivated by golf in general.

To give just one example, she is an out-and-out expert on how her compatriots have adapted to the golfing scene and, in outlining where they are successful and where they are not so successful, she is almost certainly giving food for thought to would-be golfers everywhere.

Far from believing that the South Korean women’s stack of major titles has most to do with long hours on the range, Ryu focuses on the “mental training” they have in their earliest years.

“As babies,” she began, “Koreans are encouraged to keep their emotions in check; crying and noisy scenes are not condoned.

“Though our culture is not too different from the Western culture in emphasising the need to be happy, we put still more of an emphasis on the business of respecting others. Parents are embarrassed if their child starts to bawl in public and the child, in turn, learns to keep himself or herself under control. It is a big help when it comes to the pressures of tournament play.”

What she was saying took one back to the 2016 Evian Championship, where Ryu finished in a share of second place. When the women had to negotiate pouring rain and sodden greens at the start of the final round, the South Korean players looked altogether less concerned about the situation than most. So much so, that there was the suggestion that they could have walked across Lake Geneva had it been asked of them.

Having mentioned what is unarguably one of the South Koreans’ strongest suits, Ryu moved on to those areas where a Korean upbringing serves a player rather less well.

“Up until the age of 19,” she explained, “Koreans do everything their parents tell them to do, almost to the point where they have absolutely no idea how to be independent. If, for instance, they don’t have their parents with them when they set out on tour, they can have real trouble in managing themselves.

“And even if they do have their parents with them,” she continued, “it’s not necessarily a good thing. If your parents are telling you to do something and you fail, you tend to blame them when things go wrong.”

Ryu says that she herself is not out of the usual mould. As a child, she so wore her parents down with her relatively rebellious ways that they felt they had no option but to give her a smidgeon of independence. Firstly, she took it upon herself to hang back from trying for the LPGA Tour in order to attend Yonsei University.

It was a decision she never has regretted. Though she already was being feted as a top golfer, she had all the fun of being a regular student.

“College was huge for me,” Ryu said. “Whenever I was in school, I wasn’t a professional golfer but a normal student hanging out with friends and partying.”

In 2015, Ryu leapt even further outside traditional Korean boundaries. Feeling as she did that she needed a greater sense of adventure in life as much as in golf, she took off on her own to fellow LPGA player Azahara Muñoz’s wedding in Barcelona. It was not what your usual 25-year-old Korean girl would ever do and, as she had expected, her father was horrified at the very idea.

Ryu would win over her mother rather more easily than her father and, as things turned out, she positively revelled at that Spanish soirée. A lover of the local architecture, she studied the buildings of the famous architect Antoni Gaudí while, in her free time, she pondered on what she could do better in golf. Almost certainly, she would have revisited Inbee Park’s reply to her question as to whether it was natural for players in their mid-20s to start getting worse rather than better. “It’s not necessary,” Inbee had returned. “It’s just a mental thing.”

Ryu will tell you she seized on Park’s words but without ever losing sight of how important it was for her to keep golf in its place: “I love playing and I recognise the importance of being dedicated. However, I have to have more in life if I am to play happily rather than fall into the trap of playing the game as a job.”

Se Ri Pak, a five-time major champion, was the first to make an honest assessment of the Korean way of golf, albeit only after she herself had suffered from stress-related health concerns.

Pak would tell young South Koreans, “If you are 100 per cent focussed on your golf, make sure that you are 100 per cent focussed on being relaxed when you are not on the course.”

When this correspondent suggested to Pak that the girls’ parents would not thank her for what she was saying, she agreed: “It is difficult for them, but they are learning at the same time as the players are learning.”

It would seem that Ryu and her parents have arrived at that happy medium.


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