The list of So Yeon Ryu’s accomplishments is long. The 28-year-old from South Korea has reached World No. 1 and has made more than $10 million since joining the LPGA Tour in 2012. She has six wins, including two major championships, and was named Rookie of the Year in 2012 and co-Player of the Year in 2017. ▶ Athletes with a résumé like Ryu’s could be difficult to relate to, but talking to her is easy. Conversation flows easily on a variety of topics, including being brave when dining and learning to bridge two cultures to acquire an American sense of humor. She’s a golfer who says golf isn’t the only thing in her life, and she means it.
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HOW DID YOU LEARN TO PLAY GOLF?
A lot of girls in Korea learn to play through their parents, but my parents don’t play golf. I just learned through school, starting in the second grade because of my best friend. She chose golf as her after-school activity. She was saying, “We have to do something together,” and then she was like, “Let’s do golf.” I didn’t know what golf was—I just wanted to spend time with my friend.
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DID SHE ATTEMPT TO PLAY PROFESSIONALLY?
She stopped in sixth grade. Golf wasn’t her thing. But now, she’s like, “Maybe I should have kept playing; your life looks so cool.” I tell her it is really cool, but parts of it are tough, too.
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WHAT ARE SOME OF THE HARDER THINGS?
It’s loneliness. It’s not because we don’t hang out with other players—we do. But it’s an independent sport, so when we want to do something together, we worry about asking because we’re afraid it will interrupt someone’s schedule or something. We just think too much, decide not to bother someone, and then you’re having dinner by yourself. I thought I was the only one who felt that way, but apparently a lot of players are thinking the same. We have an agreement now to feel free to ask whatever you want to do together but not feel bad when someone says she can’t do it.
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IS IT HARD TO BE FRIENDS WITH THE PEOPLE YOU'RE COMPETING AGAINST?
I turned pro when I was 17 and won my first event on the Korean LPGA right away. Because of that, I got more attention. I think people were jealous. When we see someone win right away, we’re happy for her, but it’s also like, Oh, she just turned pro and won? I felt early on that if you’re a competitor, you can’t also be a friend. But when I joined the LPGA Tour, I felt like the players really cared about each other. They decorate lockers on your birthday; they’re having so much fun. Even when we’re competing, we’re quick to thumbs-up a great shot and clap. I’ve learned that my fellow-competitor can be my best friend. If you’re not a golfer, you’re not going to understand how I feel, but these people can understand all that I’m thinking. I started to feel really comfortable hanging out with them and learned what real sportsmanship was like.
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DO YOU PLAY ANY OTHER SPORTS?
I started ballet in 2016, offseason. I started because everything we do is based on trying to perform better. Because of that, a lot of our training is really athletic. I wanted to try something a little more girly, and I thought ballet could be fun.
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HAVE YOU SEEN ANY BENEFITS FOR GOLF?
Ballet actually does connect to golf. In golf, it’s really important to use the ground force when you swing. It’s the same in ballet. If you want to jump well, you have to know how to use ground force. No matter what I’m doing, I find the connection to golf. I was like, Oh my God, maybe I’m a golf addict.
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IF YOU WEREN'T A GOLFER, WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
I started piano when I was 4 years old and violin when I was 5. My elementary school required at least one after-school activity. In first grade, I did flute. So I was playing three instruments. When I first started playing violin, I thought, I’m going to become a violinist. I just loved it so much. Even when I started playing golf, I always thought I’d become a musician.
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HOW DID YOU END UP CHOOSING GOLF?
When I turned 14, my mom asked me, “What do you want to be?” At first I thought it was a silly question. Music was my everything. But then the more I thought about it, I realized I was happier on the golf course than I was playing the violin.
“To not burn out, you have to have your own life. … Having new experiences is how I make my mind fresh.”
WAS THAT A HARD CHOICE?
It was kind of easy because I was young, and my personality is that I do whatever I want to do. If I don’t want to play golf tomorrow morning, I’ll quit. That’s my life motto: You only live once, so you can’t spend your time doing things you don’t want to do. So I always just do the things that I want.
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DO YOU STILL PLAY VIOLIN?
Music has become my hobby. My sister played through undergrad. It was her major. So she still teaches me a bit. She always pokes me: “You have a good violin; you’re playing, right?” It’s like golf, though: If I don’t play, I’m not good. And my expectations are so high, it gets frustrating.
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WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN YOU STARTED PLAYING GOLF?
The first time I played 18 holes, I shot 132. I was expecting 99 or something. You don’t know how tough it is to break 100 as a beginner.
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WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCES BETWEEN GOLF IN KOREA AND THE U.S.?
You have to have around $200 to play one round. They don’t have as many benefits for the junior players. Your family has to support you a lot. But women’s golf is really strong, and it’s getting more popular, so it’s getting better. Golfzon, the simulator company (see page 82), has affected the golf population a lot. My generation has started to play golf more because Golfzon is so much cheaper. It’s like going to a karaoke bar.
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DO YOU EVER PLAY SIMULATOR GOLF WHEN YOU'RE HOME?
Sometimes I go and play because my friends have finally started to play golf. I wasn’t really good at it, but I’ve been playing more and more, so I’m getting better.
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YOU WEREN'T GOOD AT SIMULATOR GOLF? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
It’s a little different from normal golf. The long game is mostly the same. But short game is all feel. I can’t really explain it. All of the feel that I pick up from the ground when I’m playing, that’s lost. I struggled chipping and putting on the machine.
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HAVE YOU BEEN RECOGNIZED WHILE YOU'RE PLAYING IN THAT SETTING?
If I’m going to play golf, a lot of people recognize me, but when I don’t have a golf outfit on, a lot of people don’t know it’s me. They say I look really different on TV. But if I’m with Inbee [Park], people will recognize me. It’s really great—a lot of people support me. I receive so much love from them. But when I’m in an awkward position, like out with my friends or at a party, that’s the only situation I feel uncomfortable when fans approach me. Other than that, it’s really fun to meet fans. It’s a lucky thing.
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HOW DOES PLAYING LPGA EVENTS IN KOREA COMPARE TO THE EVENTS YOU PLAY IN THE U.S.?
I get more attention in Korea, and on the course, the culture is different. Korean players don’t show their emotions, especially when they’re happy. I played on the Korean LPGA for four years before coming to the LPGA, and the first thing they taught me was after a bad shot, you can’t hit your club on the ground, you cannot throw a club, you can’t yell. If you win a tournament, it’s OK to do a fist bump with your caddie or a hug, but don’t show your emotions really big because your competitor could be feeling really bad. Because of that, I feel like when I’m in Korea I try to be more calm when I play. It could be different on the KLPGA now, but that’s how I was taught.
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THAT'S PRETTY DIFFERENT FROM HOW PLAYERS BEHAVE ON-COURSE IN THE U.S.
Completely. In the U.S., the Americans love to see how we feel on the golf course. Players use the F word or throw a club. And the happy emotions, too—like what Tiger does, the Americans really love it. I feel comfortable playing golf in the U.S. because I feel more freedom. There’s good and bad to both styles—I try to smooth my game into all different cultures.
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WHY DO YOU THINK YOU ACCLIMATED SO QUICKLY TO THE AMERICAN STYLE OF PLAY?
I think I was born more Westernized. I really quickly switched to American mode when I moved here when I was 22. I think it’s because I’m a very independent person. In America, when you’re 18 and people go to university, they become independent right away. Of course parents still care, but I feel like a lot of people start to make their own decisions and live on their own. In Korea, until we marry, a lot of people live with their parents. So our culture isn’t as much about independence. I was always independent. Like if my mom asked me to do my homework, I wouldn’t do it; if she didn’t ask, I’d do it. But they realized it and let me do whatever I wanted to do. And I realized if I want to be more independent, I get more responsibility. It’s made me want to be good at everything I do, because I’m responsible for it. Even when I was young, whatever I decided to do, whatever I chose, I had to do my best. Because my parents let me be myself when I was young, I became more Westernized.
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WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO WHEN YOU'RE NOT ON THE GOLF COURSE?
I physically feel tired compared to 10 years ago, so I’m always thinking about how I can make my body feel better all the time. That’s how I got into cooking. If you’re cooking, you know what’s in there, even the smallest ingredients. I’m really into pasta. Everyone knows pasta’s not really the best for you, but I found this rice pasta that tastes really similar to normal pasta. I put a lot of vegetables in and pick a protein. I don’t eat chicken, pork and beef during tournaments because it makes my body feel really heavy. It’s normally seafood and mushrooms.
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DO YOU TRY DIFFERENT DIETS?
I did a vegan diet for two weeks to see how it’d go. I really liked it. I’m such a foodie, so I don’t think I can be completely vegan. But I want to do it once every few months.
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WHAT'S THE WEIRDEST FOOD YOU'VE EATEN?
Compared to Americans, we eat a lot of weird things, like live octopus. But one time in China, my friend told me to take a bite of something and told me it was chicken. I was like, Wow, this is really yummy. It turns out it was a donkey. I couldn’t handle it. And I heard they eat monkey brain in China. I asked Shanshan [Feng], and she confirmed it, but she doesn’t eat that. You have to be brave when you’re eating in China. You have to be in that challenger mood to try something new.
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HOW ARE MAJOR WINS DIFFERENT FROM NORMAL TOUR WINS?
At majors, you feel like you have to manage everything differently. But really, it’s still just a tournament. We’re just making the major mentality tough on ourselves. If you have experience winning tournaments, it makes it easier to deal with. Major setups are more difficult than normal setups, so if you win a major, it gives you more confidence for other events. When you’re a major champion, people think of you differently, too. I think after the U.S. Women’s Open [win in 2011], people treated me different. Especially Americans—they know me as the U.S. Open winner. It’s like you’re a star right away.
“If I don’t want to play golf tomorrow morning, I’ll quit. … You can’t spend your time doing things you don’t want to do.”
DO YOU WATCH THE PGA TOUR?
I do. I like watching Rory. I played with him at the CVS Classic. His swing was awesome. His power was really great, and he used ground force really well. I was impressed—he knows so much about the LPGA. He picked up my style of golf really quickly. He’s a golf nerd. He likes everything about golf. I thought I was a golf nerd, but maybe not compared to him.
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WHAT ARE THE BEST AND WORST PARTS OF PRO-AMS?
The worst part is when people are really into winning, like we have to make birdies all the time. That annoys me. The best part is what I learn about American culture. I learned American humor through pro-ams. The sense of humor in Korea is different. When I was in high school, we’d watch “Friends,” and the recorded audience was always laughing, but I didn’t understand why it was funny. But now I understand American humor, so I watched every episode again.
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WHAT'S THE BEST SWING TIP YOU'VE EVER GOTTEN?
A few months ago, my coach, Cameron McCormick, was like, “You know you have to complete your backswing before you start your downswing, right?” But I hadn’t thought about it like that. I always thought about the swing as one motion. It’s always been an automatic thing for me. It’s a good tip for amateur golfers, too. If you’re so rushed to hit the ball, the tempo can get off. If you think about completing your backswing, it’s hard to not have good tempo.
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WHATS YOUR BIGGEST GOAL IN GOLF?
It’s not really real to me right now, but I want to be a Grand Slammer. I’ve seen how Inbee did it—I was with her when she completed the Grand Slam in 2015. I used to think the Grand Slammers lived in a different universe, but when you see your best friend do it, you realize you can, too.
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IT SEEMS LIKE INBEE IS YOUR OLDER SISTER ON TOUR.
She’s my best friend and my mentor. Inbee’s been through everything I’ve been through, and more. She’s really good at simplifying things, and she’s very direct. She’s not going to lie to me to make me feel better. She always gives good advice.
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HOW DO YOU AVOID BURNING OUT?
It’s really tough to compete all the time. It’s not to say I don’t like competition, but when you compete, you know you have to be great, so you’re grinding all the time. To not burn out, you have to have your own life. Golf is not my everything. I feel no hesitation to try something new because of golf—as long as it won’t injure me. Having new experiences is how I make my mind fresh all the time.
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DO YOU SPLURGE WHEN YOU WIN?
I like to treat myself. I know I practice hard, so I think I deserve it. When I was young, I would buy nice purses. But now I’m into bigger things. Getting so into cooking has led me to buy more stuff to make the food better, which makes me want to make the kitchen better, and then I want to make the whole house better.
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WHAT'S THE WORST SHOT YOU'VE EVER HIT?
This year, KPMG, 17th-hole tee shot. I put it in the water and blew my chance to win another major.
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At the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open, 72nd hole, second shot. It was a tough hole, and a really tough pin position. I hit a 6-iron to eight feet, and I made the putt. That’s how I got into the playoff, and then I won. If I didn’t win that tournament, who knows where I’d be. I might be on the KLPGA or I’d have quit golf—I don’t know. That shot changed my life.