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So Yeon Ryu wins US Women's Open in a playoff
July 12, 2011

As she stood on the 18th green drenched in champagne, holding a trophy and wearing a mile-wide smile, there was no doubt about it: So Yeon Ryu is the brightest star on a South Korean golf roster that has more than its share of them.

The 21-year-old won the U.S. Women’s Open on Monday, first with a birdie on No. 18 that tied her Korean rival, Hee Kyung Seo, then with a shotmaking clinic over a three-hole playoff to beat Seo by three shots.

It was the latest—and most emphatic—statement about the pecking order of women’s golf in South Korea, where the sport’s stars turn into the country’s icons and Se Ri Pak is already a legend at age 33.

“When I was started golf, Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open tournament, so this tournament is really special for me,” Ryu said.

Starting on the 16th hole, Ryu played the three-hole playoff in 2-under par, all but sealing it when she hit three perfect shots to the green on the par-5 17th and made the putt for a birdie while Seo drove into a bunker and had to scramble for bogey.

For good measure, Ryu hit her approach on 18 to four feet for another birdie, which sparked a champagne-spraying celebration on the 18th green. Pak was among the South Korean contingent that ran out to douse Ryu in her glow-in-the-dark orange shirt and cap.

Great as the moment was, it was the birdie Ryu made on 18 about an hour earlier that was the defining moment of the tournament.

Trailing by one to an opponent who had closed out her round before darkness stopped play the previous night, Ryu stood behind her ball in the fairway, plumbed her 6-iron to her nose, then closed one eye to take dead aim at the 170-yard shot. She drew the shot uphill, over the lake and landed the ball six feet from the hole. Moments later, she slammed the putt home to pull into a tie. She ended up with two birdies in the span of an hour on a hole that yielded only 28 over five days.

Certainly nobody can ever say Ryu backed into this title, won on a 7,000-yard Broadmoor course that got hit by storms every day, turning it into a test of endurance and patience for some players and a sporadic series of starts and stops for others.

“It’s never over `til it’s over, especially in these things,” Cristie Kerr said. “People really want it, and that was a gutsy putt.”

Kerr also had a chance. She came to the Broadmoor on Monday trailing by two with two holes to play, but couldn’t convert a 12-foot putt from the fringe on 17 to make things interesting. She finished third at 1-under par.

Angela Stanford birdied 16 to also give herself an outside shot. But she, too, made par on 17 and wound up even par and in fourth place.

That left it a match between the two South Koreans who have been doing their dance for the last few years, jostling for position on the tour back home, deciding whether a permanent move to America would benefit them most, taking turns in the headlines and on the winner’s podium.

Seo appeared to be ahead coming into this tournament, breaking through on the LPGA Tour last year with a victory that sent her over to America for good in 2011. She might have cemented her hold with a victory this week and she was poised for it Sunday night.

She played 36 holes over 14 hours Sunday and finished both rounds in 3-under 68 to end regulation at 3-under 281. But there was one hiccup: A short putt that rimmed out on No. 17 when she was rushing to finish—a ball hit while the wind was whipping, leaving her uneasy as she stood over it. It left her at 3 under instead of 4 under and gave Ryu a glimmer of hope.

“I think one mistake yesterday on the 17th green, that’s the one,” Seo said.

Seo came to the course Monday knowing she might be able to collect the trophy without hitting a shot. She was warming up on the driving range when she heard a roar from the 18th grandstand. It was Ryu’s approach shot.

” So, at that time, I was thinking about, `Oh, the time is now.”’

She had to go out for three more holes and is now 0-2 against Ryu in head-to-head playoffs. They also went three holes at the Chinese Ladies Open in 2009.

Seo was graceful in discussing the tournament and what it means for her country.

“I think they were cheering for both of us,” she said. “So, yeah, I feel very happy that a South Korean player won this great, big tournament.”

Ryu, who planned on finishing school back home before going to LPGA qualifying school, will cash a $585,000 winner’s check and have a ticket to join the American tour at her leisure.

This is Ryu’s first major and her first LPGA victory. She joins Pak (1998), Birdie Kim (2005), Inbee Park (2008) and Eun Hee Ji (2009) on the list of South Korean U.S. Open champions. She now holds the lead in the much-watched contest to supplant Pak as the country’s greatest player, though it figures this race— like the tournament they just finished—will be a marathon. Ryu is 21 and Seo just turned 25.

“That means new history is coming in the future,” Pak said. “That’s what it is. It’s really good to see it.”

Hee Kyung Seo close to US Open victory
July 11, 2011

Hee Kyung Seo has a chance to carve her own special place in history. Not simply as a U.S. Open winner—but as a U.S. Open winner who won it without hitting a single shot on the final day.

In a strange, storm-infested tournament that doesn’t want to end, Seo did just about everything she could to win her first major except control the weather. She shot a pair of 3-under 68s on Sunday to finish at 3-under 281 for a one-shot lead over her South Korean rival, So Yeon Ryu, who had three holes left when darkness halted play.

Cristie Kerr was another shot back with two holes left.

Seo will sleep on the lead—though not as comfortably as she could have after missing a 3-foot par putt on No. 17—and then has a chance to wake up Monday, come to the course, never touch a club and walk away with the trophy and a check for $585,000.

“I can sleep very well, so I don’t worry about that,” she said.

But she couldn’t celebrate quite yet.

Rain delayed play for the fourth time in four days—this time for 2 hours, 37 minutes—and left 28 players still on the course, three of whom still have a shot at the title.

There’s Ryu, who shot 69 on her first trip around the course Sunday morning and has at least one decent birdie opportunity—the par-5 17th—awaiting when play resumes Monday.

“Right now, it’s kind of breezy out there,” she said when she walked off. “Tomorrow, it might be good weather and the greens might be soft. So, it’s good for me, yeah.”

There’s Kerr, a two-time major winner who isn’t conceding anything. She was getting ready to do an interview after darkness fell when she saw Seo hugging friends and family.

“The tournament is not decided yet,” Kerr said. “I think she’s over there celebrating. We all have a chance. I’m going to go out and swing for the fences and hopefully tie it up.”

Also with an outside chance is Angela Stanford, who is at even par, three shots behind with four holes to play.

If the tournament ends in a tie, they’ll decide the championship with a three-hole playoff.

On Sunday, Seo played better than anyone over 36 grueling holes of golf—at altitude on a 7,000-yard course, longest in U.S. Women’s Open history. The highlights included four straight birdies on the front nine in her final round that boosted her from 1-under par into the lead—a lead she never lost.

She scrambled through the back nine, saving par with a tricky 5-foot putt on 11, again from an awkward stance above a greenside bunker on No. 13, then again after a drive into the deep rough on 15.

“I just trusted myself and just let it go, and I made lots of birdies,” Seo said.

Stanford briefly pulled into a tie with Seo, but missed a three-foot putt for bogey on No. 11 to start a free-fall—4-over par on holes 11 through 15.

By the time Seo reached No. 17, she was ahead by two, pointing and staring at a rainbow overhead.

But the moment didn’t last long. First, after being asked by tournament officials to close the gap with the group in front, she started jogging up the fairway—not the traditional gait from someone trying to close out a major. A few moments later, Seo missed a 3-footer for bogey that let Ryu creep to within one shot.

Par for the course on a difficult day where pars were hard to find. There were only 10 completed rounds under par and nobody posted a better score than Seo’s duplicate 68s.

Yani Tseng had no luck. The world No. 1 never figured out the breaks that run away from the mountains on the Broadmoor’s greens and finished 6 over after four exhausting days.

“It’s tough to play on and off,” Tseng said. “Sometimes you just want to try to get rhythm, and it’s really tough.”

Paula Creamer didn’t fare any better. The defending champion was 5 over through the first 14 holes of the last round and will play out the string Monday, starting at 7-over par.

Most of the players arrived at the course around 5 a.m., and when they got there, they were looking at two of Japan’s best players—Mika and Ai Miyazato— in the lead.

Some 15 hours later, and thanks to a pair of third-round 76s from the Miyazatos, Japan’s flag had been replaced by South Korea’s at the top of the leaderboard and the Miyazatos—unrelated but both from Okinawa—were 3 over with five holes left.

Seo and Ryu are part of a half dozen or so South Koreans fondly known as the Seoul Sisters, who are trying to take over where five-time major winner Se Ri Pak left off, adding their names to the long list of successful players from a country that produces plenty.

With an eye trained for fashion and a swing built for winning, Seo has also earned another nickname—“Supermodel of the Fairways.”

If nobody catches her on Monday, the title “U.S. Open Champion” will work fine, too.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “I think there’s not going to be any wind in the morning, so I will just pray and wait.”

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