You could sense the emotion, right below the surface, knocking, but not quite welcome out in the open. When So Yeon Ryu, once the No. 1 player in the world and a young woman who was one wrong club away from perhaps being a three-time major champion, answered questions prior to teeing off this week at Lake Merced Golf Club in the LPGA Mediheal Championship outside San Francisco, the most revealing thing she said came from the most innocuous question.
“Do you feel like your game’s coming together this season?” she was asked.
It was the kind of question players get every week; the kind you could answer in your sleep. Perfunctory and generally meaningless: This was what sports journalists call a “conversation starter.” The normal response is always: “Yeah, things are coming together well,” followed by an anecdote about working on this or that club – good enough for a note on the side of a main story, or a sound bite on the evening recap. It’s a dance journalists and athletes have. We’ll pick a song you know and you lead with the steps we’ve practiced.
But Ryu is different – deeper, thoughtful, more honest than most. She is smarter than she is kind and she is abundantly kind. When you look at the LPGA ad campaigns, old or new, there is one Korean player in all of them: Ryu. She rarely says “no” and when she does she later apologizes for it. So, a few locals in San Francisco were surprised when she didn’t give the perfunctory answer to what everyone knew was an average question.
“To be honest, it’s been really frustrating,” she said about her slower-than-normal start to 2019. A missed cut and a couple of deep-in-the-pack finishes were atypical for a woman who prides herself on consistency.
“After I played the ANA Inspiration (where she barely made the cut and finished T39) and then, after having a week break before I played (the Lotte Championship), I had a lot of time,” she said. “I was thinking about like my game. But I was also thinking about my life. I was thinking about my behavior. Then I realized that I wasn’t really, fully confident.”
“Let’s say if I missed a shot, like my first reaction was always, ‘How can I hit that kind of shot?’ Now I’m looking to (say) I make a right decision. I did my best. I just missed it. We’re human beings. … Just don’t put yourself down. Try to focus on next shot.” – So Yeon Ryu
You could see it in some of the early outings. When her ball-striking was a little off, she would actually yell at herself. Once she even slammed a club, which is akin to most people breaking every iron in their bag and throwing themselves prostrate into the nearest lake.
“These days I’m really telling myself, ‘You’re a great player,’ instead of saying, ‘What can I do better?’ I’m just trying to be very polite to myself.”
The strategy worked. Ryu had seven birdies and two bogeys in the opening round of the Mediheal tournament, posting a 67 that tied her for the lead. But she wasn’t totally out of beat-yourself-up mode. A bogey at the par-5 ninth (her final hole of the day) left her with a sour taste. “That was frustrating,” she said. But then she was back to being philosophical.
“It’s really tough, because when you’ve dedicated yourself to make your game better and better and then when you cannot really see the results right away, it can be really easy to get frustrated. The thing is, it’s just golf. It’s not (life and death). Nothing’s really guaranteed. Even though you practice really hard, nothing’s guaranteed. Well, sort of guaranteeing if you practice hard, you have a chance to play better. But if you don’t practice hard, it’s guaranteed that you cannot perform really well.
“Let’s say if I missed a shot, like my first reaction was always, ‘How can I hit that kind of shot?’ Now I’m looking to (say) I make a right decision. I did my best. I just missed it. We’re human beings. Sometimes things are out of our control. Just don’t put yourself down. Try to focus on next shot.”
She overcame the bone-chilling San Francisco cold – weather that is not to Ryu’s liking – and a week of sponsor obligations (Mediheal is one of her main sponsors) to find herself atop the leaderboard for the first time all year.
“I was searching for a swing problem that wasn’t there,” she said. “Instead, I need to focus on what I can do for the future. So when you keep doing that, keep having negative thoughts and beating yourself up, you start losing your confidence. You become a more negative person instead of positive person. And I always thought one of my strongest assets was positive thinking. I think I was just a bit lost.”
After the first round, she assessed how she did. But Ryu didn’t mention any shots.
“First of all, I think just my expectations where a little high. When I missed a shot a little bit, or missed a putt a little bit, I have been very harsh on myself, even though I promised myself I wasn’t going to do that. But then I was like, ‘You know what, I already promised myself that I wasn’t going to be harsh on myself. Let’s just free up enjoy it. I guess that mindset really helped me make a lot of birdies.
“Behaving well on the golf course is really tough. But that’s what I’m good at. I guess that’s what it means to be a professional golfer. I just hope I can behave on the golf course for the next three days.”
So Yeon Ryu during Thursday’s first round. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images.
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