For Korean women, Olympic pressure is stifling

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DALY CITY, Calif. – So Yeon Ryu knows what Olympic fever can do.

It seems as if every golf fan in her native South Korea is stricken with it.

She knows the brilliant 9-under-par 63 she shot Thursday to take the early lead at the Swinging Skirts Classic will lead folks back home to begin calculating what a victory Sunday could do for Ryu’s hopes of making the Korean Olympic team, and she dreads the feverish projections.

It’s like the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro have become the be all and end all of Korean golf.

“That just makes me crazy,” Ryu said.

Two months ago, Ryu was No. 8 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, which put her fourth in the Korean Olympic rankings, which gave her a grip on Korea’s final qualifying spot into the games, but the Korean rankings move from week to week like a maddening game of musical chairs.

Somebody’s always squeezing in and somebody’s always getting squeezed out.

How tight is the competition to make the Korean Olympic team? Ten of the top 20 players in the world rankings are Koreans. The teams won’t be finalized until July 11.

Ryu has watched a young, new cast of Koreans surge in the Olympic rankings, bumping her down to No. 11, which makes her sixth in the Korean rankings, two spots outside the qualifying standard. Inbee Park, Sei Young Kim, In Gee Chun, Ha Na Jang and Amy Yang rank ahead of Ryu.

Ryu is so weary of the Olympic obsession, she quit looking at the rankings.

“I just keep thinking about negative things when I think about the Olympics, so I really try not to think about it,” Ryu said.

Ryu is trying to keep her focus on what she can control, posting scores. First off Thursday on the back nine, Ryu posted a record score. Her 63 was a Swinging Skirts tournament course record at Lake Merced Golf Club, bettering the 65 Brooke Henderson shot in the second round last year. Thursday’s fast start left Ryu two shots ahead of Japan’s Haru Nomura and four ahead of China’s Xi Yu Lin and the Netherlands’ Christel Boeljon.

With Lake Merced’s firm fairways and greens, and its thick rough, players were expecting tough scoring conditions.

“I saw So Yeon’s score, and she was 7 under through 10,” said Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko, who opened with a 68 in her bid to win this event for the third consecutive year. “I said, `Wow, that course is easy, whatever course she’s playing.

“She’s really a consistent player. Obviously, everything was going right today. For her to shoot a score like that, that’s really impressive.”

After opening with a par, Ryu birdied seven of the next eight holes to turn in 29. She ended up hitting 11 of 14 fairways and all but one green in regulation.

Ryu, 25, burst onto the American scene in 2011, when she won the U.S. Women’s Open as a Korean LPGA Tour player. She’s seeking her fourth LPGA title, her first since winning the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in August of 2014. She did win twice last year, once on the KLPGA Tour and once on the Ladies European Tour.

In a bid to improve her game this off season, Ryu hired a new coach, Cameron McCormick, Jordan Spieth’s coach. McCormick helped her overhaul her swing.

Yes, Ryu hopes her revamped swing can get her to the Olympics, but she won’t buy into the idea this season’s success rides solely on making the Olympics.

“The biggest thing is Korean media,” Ryu said. “If someone is going to make the Olympics, they're a great player. Then if somebody cannot make it, they're a really bad player.”

Na Yeon Choi, the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open champion, knows what Ryu is feeling.

Choi opened with a 68 Thursday but wouldn’t allow herself to think about what a big week would mean to her Olympic hopes. Choi is 20th in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, which makes her the 10th-highest ranked Korean in the world.

“Honestly, I don’t think about it at all anymore,” Choi said. “I remember when I got to No. 2 in the world and was trying to get to No. 1, I remember I had so much stress. When I start worrying about results, it doesn’t help.”