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."
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.