For nearly a decade, So Yeon Ryu has been one of the top LPGA players. And for her last 10 tournaments, Nelly Korda has been the best player on tour. They make for a fascinating matchup this week at the ANA Inspiration. One is a past champion looking for more and the other is a relative newcomer looking to validate recent success with her first major title. And both adore the history of Mission Hills.
In a fun game-within-the-game, Ryu and Korda enter the ANA Inspiration tightly locked in the Rolex Rankings. Ryu is No. 7, but her lead over No. 8 Korda is only 0.02 points. That’s just one of the reasons these two likable young stars would make for great watching in a Sunday shootout for the first major of the year.
Since October, when she was 10th at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship, Korda has been sizzling with eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts, including two victories. In her first five events of 2019, including a win at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, Nelly has dominated. She’s 20th in driving distance, 30th in accuracy, first in greens in regulation, eighth in putts per GIR and second in scoring.
“My goal is just to stay consistent, not to overreact when I hit bad shots,” Korda said Wednesday at Mission Hills. “That was a goal of mine this year; take it shot by shot and really to stay calm.”
While her record in majors is a work in progress – at 20, Korda has played only 14 – she’s getting her game legs in big events. Her career-best in a major is T-10 in the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open and she was T-13 in last year’s ANA Inspiration.
“There is definitely more prep going into a major,” she said. “I have my coach [David Whelan] out here, so obviously there was a freak-out this week. He's always behind me just keeping me calm.”
Ryu, 28, does everything with a calm grace. She burst on the scene with a victory over Hee Kyung Seo at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open, making a six-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff then winning with a birdie on the third extra hole.
She’s off to a slow start this year, missing the cut at last week’s Kia Classic for only the sixth time in 171 career starts, after finishing T- 29 and T-26 in Thailand and Singapore.
“I wasn't really happy with the last three tournaments,” she said Wednesday. “I think I really need to have back my confidence. I knew my swing wasn't really great in Asia. Then I just kept talking myself to like, ‘You're not ready, you're not ready,” instead of, ‘You're going to be ready soon, you're going to be ready soon.’"
That’s a corner she’s turned.
“Right now I just have a different mindset,” she said. “Like no matter what, I know you're great player and just trust yourself and just enjoy this game and think about the one ball at a time instead of the whole picture.”
Ryu is certainly comfortable with major pressure. In addition to that U.S. Women’s Open, she won the ANA Inspiration in 2017, also in a playoff, that one with Lexi Thompson, and has three runner-up finishes and four third-place efforts in majors. This is her 10th ANA Inspiration and she’s made the cut every time.
“I always enjoy to prepare for a major tournament with my coach [Cameron McCormick],” Ryu said. “One of the things I want to make sure to work with him, I want to have a lot of skills around the green. I think that's one of the main things to win the major: Make less bogeys and make a lot of birdies.”
Ryu’s strength is consistency. She hits a lot of greens (14th last Year) and makes a lot of putts (11th P-GIR). Since 2012, she has never been out of the top-10 in scoring, the money list or the Rolex Rankings and has won or finished second at least once every year on Tour.
There is also a kindness to Ryu that fans love. When she got her sixth career win last year at the Meijer LPGA Classic, she donated $100,000 to a charity that feeds the hungry. And the graceful way she handled the 2017 ANA Inspiration after the penalty on Lexi contributed to her win was noticed by all. She’d like to add her name to the Wall of Champions again, this time without controversy.
“Grace Park [who won in 2004] was always my idol," Ryu said. "I watched on TV like she was jumping in the Poppie’s Pond. Since then, I always dream I'm going to jump into the Poppie's Pond and see my name on the bridge,” Ryu says. “Then dreams came true. Every time when I come here I just feel so blessed and then so motivated to keep playing well. I look forward to have more of my name on the bridge.”
For Korda, a win would mean beating her older sister Jessica to the winner’s circle in a major and getting bragging rights in their friendly familial rivalry.
“It's just the history, jumping into Poppie's Pond when you win,” Nelly said. “It's really cool. I've always, as a little girl, watched this tournament and I've always been so inspired by all the past winners.”
Like most at the ANA Inspiration, Ryu and Korda are motivated by childhood images of Poppie’s Pond. It’s a dip So Yeon wants to take again and one Nelly wants to make for the first time. Both are among the top contenders to be wrapped in a bathrobe in the fading light on Sunday evening, just like they saw on TV back when they were kids.