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Big changes pay major dividends for So Yeon Ryu

(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

It's easy to forget that So Yeon Ryu won the LPGA Tour's first major championship of the year.

The strongest memory from the ANA Inspiration was the four-shot penalty assessed to Lexi Thompson with six holes to play for a violation that occurred the day before (two shots for replacing her ball in the wrong spot, two shots for signing an incorrect scorecard).

Ryu played the final 27 holes without a bogey. She made birdie on the 72nd hole that got her into a playoff, and then the 26-year-old South Korean blistered a drive down the middle that allowed her to go for the green on the par-5 18th and set up a chip-and-putt birdie to beat Thompson and claim her second major.

That was the key moment in a strong turnaround for Ryu.

Over her last nine tournaments dating to Malaysia last fall, Ryu has a victory, three runner-up finishes and a tie for third. Her worst result is a tie for seventh. Ryu has a 68.03 scoring average to lead the LPGA Tour, and her $859,936 puts her more than $370,000 ahead of Thompson.

It was the result of a decision at the end of 2015 to take one step back for a giant leap forward.

Ryu sought out Cameron McCormick, the swing coach for Jordan Spieth, and she moved from Los Angeles to Dallas last spring. She also turned to Ian Baker-Finch to help her stop thinking so much about technique in her putting.

"I knew I needed to change or I was not going to improve," Ryu said in a phone interview Tuesday after a practice session with McCormick. "I changed my coach and I changed my swing. I knew it was going to take time. But the new swing made me dedicate myself. And it was worth it."

She noticed an immediate improvement working with McCormick, though she often reverted to her old swing when she was under pressure last year.

"When you lose confidence in your swing, you lose confidence with everything," she said.

Ryu still finished 10th on the LPGA money list, though it was her lowest ranking in her five years on the LPGA Tour. As she became more comfortable with change, she said, Baker-Finch helped her free her mind over putts.

Her biggest disappointment from going through changes in 2016 was failing to qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Ryu fell to No. 12 last summer, making her the sixth-highest ranked Korean at the cutoff to qualify. No country was allowed more than four players.

Ryu is now No. 2 in the world, and she had a mathematical chance last week in Hawaii to replace Lydia Ko atop the ranking if she had won. But she finished sixth, while Ko rallied on the weekend to tie for second, so No. 1 will have to wait.

"I always dreamed of being No. 1 in the world, but I never expected my ranking to come this high very quickly," Ryu said. "The most important thing is to never think about the ranking. The only thing I can control is working at being a better golfer instead of the No. 1 golfer. And just enjoy it."

Ryu won in her debut on the Korean LPGA at age 17 and captured her first major in the 2011 U.S. Women's Open before she was an LPGA Tour member. She was a junior in college at Yonsei University and wanted to finish her degree. That has been as valuable as any swing change.

"I learned how to make a balance between the professional golf So Yeon Ryu and the person So Yeon Ryu," she said. "On KPGA, I won my first tournament and got all the expectations to think I'm the best in the world. When I went to college, I was just one of the students. I learned so much out of golf. I learned that golf is not my everything. Golf is only part of my life."

And right now, it's a good life.

TIGER UPDATE: Tiger Woods is promoting his book on the 1997 Masters. And he's designing golf courses, the latest project a public course at Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri. He's just not playing much golf.

Woods hit two shots to a par 3 during the TGR Design announcement Tuesday in southwest Missouri. The first one was short and rattled around in the rock. The second one landed about 10 feet away from the flag.

In video from PGA Tour Entertainment, Woods said his back was progressing.

"I have good days and bad days," Woods said. "I've had three back operations, and that's the nature of the business, unfortunately. That's all I can say."

Woods hasn't played since he opened with a 77 in the Dubai Desert Classic on Feb. 2 and withdrew because of back spasms. He said he tried to get ready for the Masters, but rehabilitation on his back did not allow him enough time.

The next target dates for Woods if he plans to play are The Players Championship (May 11-14), the Memorial (June 1-4) and the U.S. Open (June 15-18), which will be held at Erin Hills in Wisconsin for the first time.

Woods has not played in a major since he missed the cut in the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

DOMINICAN UPGRADE: The Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republican is going from a Web.com Tour event to an opposite-field event on the PGA Tour next year. The tournament will be played March 22-25, the same week as the Dell Technologies Match Play.

As an opposite-field event, it will offer a purse of at least $3 million and only 300 FedEx Cup points to the winner (compared with 500 points for a full PGA Tour event). The winner gets into the PGA Championship but not the Masters.

The Puntacana event will be played in two weeks as part of the Web.com Tour schedule.

The Puerto Rico Open this year was held the same week as Match Play. It will return in 2018 to the same week as another World Golf Championships event, the Mexico Championship.

That gives the PGA Tour five events next year opposite the four WGCs and the British Open.

KO CHANGES: Lydia Ko won the Marathon Classic in Ohio on July 14 for her fifth victory of the LPGA Tour season, which already included a major championship and a playoff loss in another. That was her last victory.

Ko ended a streak of 15 consecutive LPGA Tour starts out of the top three when she shot 65-64 on the weekend at the LPGA Lotte Championship in Hawaii and was runner-up by three shots to Cristie Kerr.

And then she fired another caddie.

Golfweek magazine first reported that Ko parted way with Gary Matthews after they had worked together for nine tournaments. Ko already parted with her previous caddie, Jason Hamilton, with whom she had won 10 times in two years. She also ditched David Leadbetter to work with swing coach Gary Gilchrist. And she left Callaway Golf to sign a deal with PXG.

Her next tournament is in two weeks in Texas.

DIVOTS: Ian Poulter makes his final start on a major medical extension from a foot injury last year at the Valero Texas Open. Poulter needs $30,624 - alone in 36th place or better - to secure his full card for the rest of the season. Poulter last played the Texas Open in 2013. He tied for 37th. ... Cristie Kerr's victory in Hawaii was the second this year for Americans on the LPGA Tour, matching the total of American victories in 2016. ... Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are among the early commitments to play in the Memorial.

STAT OF THE WEEK: The last six winners of the RBC Heritage started the final round at least three shots out of the lead.

FINAL WORD: "Maybe one day I'll wake up and kind of realize what's gone on the last 15 months or so." - Wesley Bryan, who 15 months ago had never played in a PGA Tour-sanctioned tournament. He won three times on the Web.com Tour last year and earned his first PGA Tour victory Sunday at Hilton Head.

Updated April 18, 2017

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