OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – So Yeon Ryu sat alone on a shuttle bus headed back from Wrigley Field to the drop-off point in Tinley Park. It had been a long day for the newly-minted World No. 1, who’d gone from pro-am to press conference to a welcome reception in a black dress and heels. She was still smiling when the lights popped on as the bus rolled in. Ryu thanked the driver as she walked down the stairs.
Not much had changed for the elegant Ryu in the 48 hours she’d been No. 1. She expects more interviews and more autographs at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. But so far, the added pressure and responsibility haven’t set in.
There’s a tussle at the top right now on the LPGA. After Lydia Ko spent 85 consecutive weeks at the top, Ariya Jutanguarn ousted her on June 12 after a victory at the Manulife LPGA Classic. Jutanugarn’s reign lasted only two weeks, however, as Ryu took over on June 26, becoming the first repeat winner of the 2017 season.
Add Lexi Thompson (No. 4) and In Gee Chun (No. 5) to the mix and the No. 1 ranking could be a free-for-all the rest of the year.
It’s reminiscent of the 2010 season, when Lorena Ochoa abruptly retired in April, leaving Cristie Kerr, Ai Miyazato and Jiyai Shin to pass the honor back and forth until Yani Tseng began her era of dominance in 2011.
Ryu is the 11th player, and third South Korean, to ascend to No. 1 since the Rolex Rankings debuted in February 2006.
Ryu happened to be celebrating her victory with Park at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Arkansas when word came that she had taken over the top spot. Ryu was relatively new to the LPGA scene when her best friend, Park, began her reign as No. 1.
“You’re the one always celebrating all good things with me,” Park told Ryu on Sunday. “I’m so glad I can be with you when you have a really good time.”
In Park, Ryu got a front-row seat to what it takes to dominate the majors and build an LPGA Hall of Fame career in short order. She saw how hard Park worked, and took note of the fact that she wasn’t the last one grinding on the range.
Mostly, she noticed that Park didn’t change.
“She never really got down or never really (got) cocky,” said Ryu. “I more learned about how to be a great player through how she reacts instead of how she talked.”
On Thursday, Ryu will celebrate her 27th birthday when she tees it up for the first time as No. 1. A proud Park shared that nugget with the media during her pre-tournament press conference.
“She was a world-class player since she (came) out there,” said Park. “She was just waiting and waiting for that moment.”
Ryu certainly isn’t resting now that she’s on top. Her main goal: achieving the career grand slam.
“Even though I’m No. 1 right now, I still have to knock down three more tournaments to become a Grand Slam winner,” said Ryu. “So I don’t think I’m going to stop improving myself.”
Jutanugarn looks at the ping-pong up top as a way to keep the pressure off. The KPMG at Olympia Fields begins an important stretch for the LPGA, with three majors being held in the span of six weeks.
It’s possible that one player could win a couple majors in quick order and break away from the pack, taking the first step in establishing a new era of dominance.
Jutanugarn, for one, doesn’t seem overly stressed about it.
“I think the ranking is just like, if I get there, I get there,” she said. “If not, so what?”
Ko spent a total of 104 weeks at the top, trailing only Tseng (109) and Ochoa (158). But the Kiwi’s been winless on the LPGA since July of 2016.
Stacy Lewis, who spent 25 weeks at No. 1, doesn’t see the shuffle up top ending anytime soon.
“Is it hard to win out here? Absolutely,” said Lewis. “Is it harder to dominate now than it was five or six years ago? Absolutely. The level of play is as good as I’ve ever seen it.”
There have been 15 different winners on the LPGA this season. Park, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist, is among them. One year ago at this championship, many people thought Park might be retired by the time the next KPMG rolled around. Instead, the seventh-ranked Park is at Olympia Fields answering questions about her desire to make another run at No. 1.
Park didn’t dismiss the idea, saying she simply needed to make more putts. This coming from one of the best putters in the history of the game.
It’s a party at the top, and what comes next isn’t easy to predict.
“I just don’t think you’re going to see a player be a dominant No. 1,” said Lewis, “just because everybody hits it far, everybody hits greens, everybody putts good. With technology, there’s not a whole lot separating players other than what’s up here, what’s in the mind. …
“I think everybody’s just that good.”