COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- 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.”