With five LPGA Tour wins, two majors and now the No. 1 ranking under her belt, So Yeon Ryu is playing the best golf of her career—and is ready to realize even bigger dreams.
You won the ANA Inspiration, your first win in three years, and soon after you ascended to No. 1 in the world. How did you achieve such a breakthrough in your game?
Before I won the ANA Inspiration, I wasn’t sure about myself. Was I strong enough to handle tournament pressure? But the ANA was one of the toughest situations that I had to deal with, and I got through. That gave me a lot of confidence about my golf and my mental game.
That must have been an emotional Sunday. Lexi Thompson had a comfortable lead before taking a four-shot penalty for improperly moving her mark during the previous day’s round. What was going through your mind that afternoon?
I was really struggling for the first nine holes—my driving game wasn’t very good. I can’t remember the exact number, but I think I only hit like two or three fairways. So I was busy trying to get up and down instead of trying to make birdies. But my game slowly got better on the back. And when I reached the 17th green, I looked up at the leaderboard and saw my name on top. I was like, “What’s going on here?” That’s when I realized what had happened to Lexi.
You had to birdie the 18th hole to get into a playoff with Lexi.
That was really, really, nerve-racking. That third shot was a very tough chip, and the birdie putt wasn’t easy, either—it was four or five feet, left to right and downhill.
Not the putt you want to face to stay alive in a major championship…
No, but I made it. And that’s when I thought, “Okay, you know, that was a really tough situation, but I handled it pretty well. Whether I go to the playoff or not, I’m going to be happy that I finished well in my first major tournament [of the year].” But then we ended up going to a playoff. A lot of people were rooting for Lexi because of everything that had happened to her, which was totally understandable—she’s leading the tournament by four shots, and all of a sudden she has to go through a playoff to get the trophy.
How did you adjust mentally to that challenge?
I just thought about playing my game instead of worrying about what had happened. I’m not the one judging the situation. I’m not the one handing out penalties. So what can I do to do my best? One of the biggest things I learned from my psychologist was to just ask myself, “Am I able to handle the situation, or am I not?” Lexi’s situation was out of my hands and out of my control. All I could control was how I played my own game.
So many people were impressed with the way you handled yourself that day. But let’s go back to your first major win, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open. That must have been a huge turning point in your career.
After I won the U.S. Women’s Open, I was very fortunate to be able to join the LPGA Tour right away. So that saved me a lot of time and energy [because I didn’t have to go to Q-School]. I had always dreamed about the LPGA, but I wasn’t really sure—could I play well on the world stage? Because it’s a really different stage compared with Korea. Plus, English isn’t my first language, and this is a different culture. But winning that tournament gave me a lot of confidence.
Se Ri Pak retired from professional golf last October. How much did she influence you as a young player?
Se Ri definitely opened the door for me. She was the first professional golfer I knew, so she was one of my biggest influences. But Grace Park was, too. Back when [Park] won the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship, I loved her style. She’s really pretty and has a lot of charisma. And she was very aggressive, too—she always tried to go for the pin instead of a safe place.
You work with Cameron McCormick, who also works with Jordan Spieth. What has he brought to your game?
Cameron knows how tough it is to be a top player. He already had plenty of experience with Jordan, so he really understands my situation. He’s also someone I can talk to when I have a problem. These days, he’s not just a coach, he’s one of my great friends in the Dallas area. I feel really fortunate to have him in my life.
You’ve achieved so much already. What would it take for you to say, I’ve had a successful career?
Right now my biggest goal is the Grand Slam. But when I retire, I’d really like to think that I did my best, that I couldn’t have done any better. Whether I achieve my goals or not, if I’ve done my best, I’ve had a perfect life.
ONE THING I KNOW FOR SURE
IT’S TOUGH TO BE NO. 1: There are several players near the top of the ranking, and I feel fortunate that I was able to beat them and reach No. 1, even for just a few weeks. But it has definitely motivated me to keep playing well. I want to be a true No. 1, not just get there because of other players’ struggles.