A special day for South Korea turned out to be even more special for So Yeon Ryu.
Fighting her way into a tie at the end of 72 holes and then shutting the door on her rival, Ryu won the U.S. Women's Open on Monday, defeating Hee Kyung Seo by three shots in a three-hole playoff.
Ryu became the fifth South Korean to win the Open and the fourth in the past seven years. Yes, they take their golf seriously there and Se Ri Pak — the queen of the sport in that country — was out on the course watching the 21-year-old Ryu make history.
"I'm proud of it," Ryu said. "To see my hero, Se Ri Pak, out there fighting for me. It's pretty powerful, yeah."
Ryu played the three-hole playoff in two-under par, all but sealing it when she hit three perfect shots to the green on the par-five 17th for a birdie while Seo drove into a bunker and had to scramble for bogey.
For good measure, Ryu hit her approach on the 18th hole to four feet for another birdie.
But really, it was the birdie she made on that hole about an hour earlier that set her up for the win.
Trailing by one to an opponent who had closed out her round before darkness stopped play the previous night, Ryu hit a 6-iron uphill, over the lake on No. 18 to six feet. She slammed the putt home to pull into a tie and ended up with two birdies in an hour on a hole that yielded just 28 over five days.
Nobody will ever say Ryu backed into this victory, won on a 7,000-yard Broadmoor course that got hit by storms every day, turning it into a marathon for some players and a sporadic series of starts and stops for others.
Seo was the best on Sunday, when she played 36 holes over 14 hours and finished both rounds at three-under 68. But there was one hiccup: a short putt that rimmed out on the 17th 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 three under instead of four under and gave Ryu a glimmer of hope.
"I think one mistake [Sunday]on the 17th green, that's the one," Seo said.
Sue Kim of Langley, B.C., finished 14 over in a tie for 50th. The former amateur standout who's beginning a pro career was the only Canadian among five to make the cut.
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. She had to go out for three more holes and is now 0-2 against Seo in head-to-head playoffs. They also went three holes at the Chinese Ladies Open in 2009.
Ryu, who still plays most of her golf on the Korean Tour, joins Pak, Birdie Kim, Inbee Park and Eun Hee Ji on the list of South Korean U.S. Open champions. She took 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.
"Big celebrating right now," Pak said. "I was walking three holes and looked back and said, 'All I can say is I'm very proud — proud to be Korean, proud for them to be out there and playing their best.' They're the true champions. I'm very happy to see it."