The curious case of So Yeon Ryu and the world No. 1s
EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France -- It's easy to forget that the LPGA's date with September major championship golf began 12 months before the Evian Championship was elevated in status in 2013.
This week the field returns to one of golf's most spectacular locations. The year's final major is played on a twisting, tree-lined track that overlooks the spa town of Evian-les Bains. Views of it are framed by Lake Geneva and snow-capped Swiss mountains.
It is, in every way, evocative of the 1920s and 30s, the golden age of health tourism when art deco posters proclaimed the benefits of fresh alpine air, revitalizing spring water and restorative rounds of golf.
What a contrast with that first September major.
Back in 2012, a scheduling clash caused the Ricoh Women's British Open to pause until the ninth month of the year and the scene at Royal Liverpool was anything but tourist-enticing.
As So Yeon Ryu completed her final round the skies above her were an inky blue-black in color, they frequently exploded with torrential rain, and the bleak linksland landscape was battered by a bone-achingly cold wind.
Ryu, coming toward the end of her first full year on the LPGA, finished tied for fifth and actually laughed when asked about the conditions. She explained how she had practiced through similar weather earlier in the week, aware that in competition she would have no choice and that to seek the warmth of the player's lounge would have left her unprepared for the challenge to come.
Her coach then, the Australian Ian Triggs, nodded at this and added as an aside that it was this attitude, plus her remarkable poise under pressure, which would eventually see her top the Rolex rankings.
At the end of last year the two parted company, with Ryu joining the camp of Jordan Spieth's coach Cameron McCormick. Twelve weeks ago, she fulfilled the Triggs prophecy.
In doing so she usurped Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn, who had spent a mere fortnight at the top and who seemed to view her time there as a torment. Admittedly she has been struggling with a shoulder injury, but the notion that she had claimed a poisoned chalice was not entirely groundless given recent history.
Dominated by Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa for the first five years of their existence (the Swede would have monopolized them for much longer had they been initiated before 2006), the women who have succeeded those legends of the game as world No. 1 have consistently struggled with the role.
Ochoa retired in May 2010, and by the end of that year Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato and Cristie Kerr had each enjoyed three separate spells leading the rankings. It was as if the act of climbing the ladder focused the mind, but standing still on the top rung caused intense fear of heights. Between them the three managed just one victory while leading the rankings and each of them claimed more career titles before they ascended to the top than they have since.
Yani Tseng initially bucked that trend, winning 10 times in her first year as world No. 1 (from early 2011), but winning nothing in her second year or since. A descent that was as startling as it remains mysterious.
Inbee Park and Lydia Ko were similar to Tseng, claiming six victories apiece during their spells at No. 1. Ko is also comparable in that what has happened since the middle of her time there is something of a riddle.
The New Zealander, who despite all this remains a mere 20 years old, spent the second half of her two-year, and two-spell, reign without victory. It seems absurd to suggest that she will ultimately go three years without a win, but then who would have predicted it would take Stacy Lewis that long after her slide from the top?
In the circumstances, Ryu might have been forgiven for feeling content to reach No. 2 in the world and let someone else deal with the difficulties associated with a tainted distinction.
I was very overwhelmed and just couldn't believe it. I was really, really happy. I get a lot of attention, people yelling at me things like 'You're awesome, you're No. 1!'So Yeon Ryu
And yet, among many strengths, Ryu's serenity was always thought her greatest. Surely if anyone could deal with the pressure it was she?
Initially she talked in glowing terms of the experience. "I'm living a dream," she said. "I feel really great about it, haven't really felt any pressure or responsibility."
Even last month, in a news conference for this week's championship, she was determined to be upbeat.
"I was very overwhelmed and just couldn't believe it. I was really, really happy," she said. "I get a lot of attention, people yelling at me things like 'You're awesome, you're No. 1!' Those kind of things definitely make me happy to be No. 1. But after that, everything is normal, I still want to be a better player."
But that use of the word "overwhelmed" might have been a clue to a slightly different story. Another pointer was her form. Up to becoming world No. 1, she made 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Since? One in six. That's quite a contrast and this week she has been more candid about the trials of world supremacy.
"I was feeling great but not playing well," she reported. "I thought I needed a little break, spent time with my sister, and then I worked with my coach. We made a few changes. Not big changes. Just opening my body a little more on the downswing."
It was almost as if she was slowly working toward the real gist of the matter.
"My mindset," she continued. "I changed that, too. I didn't realize until the Ricoh Women's British Open that being No. 1 is a lot of pressure. It's tough, and I don't want to run away from it. I want to fight through it.
"I wanted to feel that I deserve this pressure and it's kind of like my duty."
Solace has come in the advice of those who have been there before her. She has talked to compatriot Park, and recently dined with Miyazato and Tseng.
"They have had the same experiences, so when I talk to them they understand," said Ryu. "One of the biggest lessons came from Yani. She said she felt a lot of pressure to make other people happy and ultimately you have to be happy."
This week's curtain call for the majors would be the perfect time to end any notion of ranking-vertigo becoming a long-term problem and the fact she finished tied for second here 12 months ago ought to provide hope.
Ironically, the woman she shared second with last year might be the biggest threat to her primacy (pressure and Lexi Thompson notwithstanding).
Sung Hyun Park announced herself to the LPGA in stunning fashion back in late 2015, carding a first round 62 to take a four-shot lead in the HanaBank Championship. She would end the week second and then clocked up three top-six finishes in the 2016 majors.
Her consistent quality transferred into this season, earning her the nickname "Tiger" among the players and in mid-July only one facet was missing from her game. In 21 starts on the LPGA she had only twice ended the week outside the top 25; on no less than eight occasions she had made the top four; but there was no win.
She then accomplished what Ryu did: She made the U.S. Women's Open her first tour title. When, two weeks later at the Women's British Open, it was suggested to a group of caddies that despite this breakthrough she was still learning to win, they scoffed.
She just needed to learn how to chip, they said, before adding that her caddie David Jones had reported an astounding improvement in her game around the greens in the week prior to the Bedminster victory.
Their message was simple: Watch out, she's going to win more. A lot more.
Since then Park has teed it up just once, in the Canadian Women's Open, where she shot a final round 64 to turn a final round four-shot deficit into a two-shot victory.
In doing so she passed seven major winners and among that number was Ryu. Do not be surprised if she passes her again soon, this time in the world rankings.