So Yeon Ryu settles into a plush leather chair at a conference room table inside the clubhouse at Mission Hills Golf Club. She is showing no signs of jetlag, despite being fresh off a 13-hour flight from Korea. Decked out in a her tournament attire, and greeting the room with a bright smile, she is more than ready. This is the effortless energy that makes her dominant on the golf course and ready to step up as golf’s next transcendent superstar.
Needless to say, it is hard enough to make it as a pro golfer. Spend a Saturday morning trying to keep that little white ball on the fairway, and you’ll have some understanding as to what it takes. Now think of trying to make it as a woman in a sport and a country where men have every advantage. Still, it is through golf that Korean women have risen to prominence on an international level.
Yet for So Yeon, golf seemingly found her.
“I’m unique a case because I chose golf because of my friend,” she recalls. “A lot of golfers (in Korea) started to play golf because of their parents. I would say 95 percent of professional golfers get into the game that way.”
She first swung a club in the second grade, but at the time she was consumed by a different instrument. As the sports cliche goes of athletes wanting to be musicians, So Yeon wasn’t scribbling lyrics. Instead, she was prodigious with a violin, the flute and piano.
As is often the case, after spending more and more time on the course, what started as a passing hobby soon became an obsession. What clicked for her was the sensory overload of the sport. In Korea, many courses are set on lush grass, while trees line fairways, with mountains in the background. Sure, 18 holes for most of us are far from relaxing, but with So Yeon’s natural ability, it became a young girl’s sanctuary — as well as a place of triumph.
Success came, and came quickly.
At 14, she made the Korean national team and played there for a few years. Then in 2006, she won gold at the Asian games. From there she went pro at the age of 17, joining Korean LPGA. In her first event, the Sports Seoul Open, she came out with a win.
Immediate success was far from easy for So Yeon to deal with. Korea has had a pipeline of successful players on the LGPA, and coupled with the meteoric rise of a teenager, and with all eyes of the nation upon her, expectations were at a nearly impossible level.
“It was really tough,” she says. “I just couldn’t handle everything as a professional golfer. Even though you’re 17 — because of that, I nearly just stopped playing golf.”
Instead, she found stability on an even larger stage, taking her talents to the United States on tour with the LPGA.
“Since I started to play in the U.S., I just really enjoyed playing golf, more than before,” So Yeon says.
The move worked. Right away. Just after her 21st birthday, Se Yeon won the U.S. Women’s Open in 2011. Following a full season on tour in 2012, she was named Rookie of the Year.
“It was the cultural difference as well,” she says, “I feel like I’m just born more like western, instead of Asian.”
Still, as settled in on the LPGA tour as she was, the transition to living the States for a Korean girl in her early 20s was not without an awkward phase. Thankfully, she had other players from her country who offered a lead to follow.
“Grace Park was my idol,” she says with a smile. “Of course I loved the way she played golf, but I loved her fashion. I loved her confidence. She was something special. Because of that, I always dreamed of the LPGA.”
Based in Los Angeles, and adjusting to a new culture, Se Yeon was back on track soon enough. Last year, she won her second major, the ANA Inspiration, in dramatic fashion on a sudden death playoff. Caught up in the moment, she took a page out of her hero Park’s book, and jumped into Poppie’s Pond.
There’s that second-grader at play again.
Now how about the idea of the next wave of Korean phenoms who see her as a role model?
“I just feel like I’m not the one yet,” she admits. “I still look up to so many role models. I hope I can represent this game well.”
Ready or not, So Yeon has arrived and has the makings not just superstardom on the golf course, but crossover appeal to the same extent as Michelle Wie, Lindsey Vonn and Maria Sharapova. And for those who need to be sold on women’s golf, So Yeon sees an aspect of the LPGA that the men’s game lacks. It’s relatable.
“I think our game is more similar as amatuer golfers,” she points out. “They can learn more from us and connect to it.”
For So Yeon the connection came immediately, while her ability matched her enthusiasm. She has the adoration of her home nation behind her, and now, the swagger to perform under a microscope. With the spotlight of a world’s stage shining on her, she’s putting on one hell of a show.