Golf was all Yuka Saso had at a young age. Now, at 19 years old, she has something no Filipino man or woman has even had—a major world golf title.
The Filipina-Japanese star clinched the distinction when she nipped Japan’s Nasa Hataoka on the third playoff hole to win the US Women’s Open Championship on Sunday (Monday in Manila) at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California.
Saso held the lead at the tournament’s halfway mark, then charged back into contention when early leader Lexi Thompson faltered down the stretch, leaving her and Hataoka to duel for the trophy in sudden death. (See related story on C1 -- Editor)
When she tapped in a 10-foot putt for birdie on the third playoff hole, Saso achieved three things: Philippine sporting immortality, a $1-million (about P50 million) prize paycheck, and her membership card on the Ladies Professional Golfing Association (LPGA) Tour, where she has a great chance to win more trophies and earn millions more.
Already the reigning Athlete of the Year as named by the Philippine Sportswriters’ Association (PSA) in 2020, Saso’s victory was the latest peak in a trajectory that started over a decade ago, when her father, Masakazu, first brought her to a driving range.
Although Yuka was born in San Ildefonso, Bulacan, Masakazu brought her and mom Fritzie to his homeland when she was four years old. Five years after that, the young Saso told her dad she wanted to be a professional parbuster “like Rory (McIlroy)” – then consumed every YouTube video she could watch of the former men’s world No. 1 to learn his swing and his way around the greens.
“I couldn’t speak Japanese and I didn’t have any friends, so my dad brought me to the driving range, to the golf course, that’s the only thing that I did,” she told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview last year.
Curiously, in a month’s time, Saso will also be making her Olympic debut in Tokyo. She is currently among the top 60 women players in the world -- ranked No. 22 among women according to the International Golf Federation – and thus qualifies for the quadrennial games (see story on C1 – Editors).
The Tokyo Olympics would be the latest and greatest stage for the reigning Asian Games women’s champion, who also led the Philippine women’s team to a gold-medal finish in the multi-nation event hosted by Indonesia in 2018. Both were Asiad firsts by the country too.
Being first has become a habit for Yuka, years after she tore through the junior golf circuit. She started training at the age of eight, and in 2017 was recognized in the PSA Annual Awards for winning the gold medal at the 2016 World Junior Girls Championship team event.
A professed music and movie buff, Yuka also won individual trophies every year starting in 2014 and picked up two more in 2020 as she made her pro debut on the Japan LPGA Tour.
But even after the euphoria she experienced Sunday at the Olympic Club – with her golf and life coach, Masakazu Saso, at her side, her mom cheering from the stands, and the large Filipino community in San Francisco egging her on – Yuka is already looking forward to the next challenge.
“It’s a great day, but tomorrow [will be] another day. We got to move on and focus on my next tournament,” she said in a GMA News TV interview.
“I still have to keep on working, so I hope they can still support me throughout my career,” Yuka ended.
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