When National Golf Association of the Philippines secretary-general Bones Floro says that Filipino golfers Yuka Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan and Juvic Pagunsan are all capable of bringing home that elusive, first-ever gold from the Olympics, you better believe it.
“Their confidence level is at their peak. They all have realistic chances even for the gold,” said Floro in an online forum recently.
And why not? Their credentials are certainly nothing to sneeze at.
First on the list is newly crowned Women’s US Open champion Yuka Saso, who made history as the first athlete from the Philippines to win a golf major.
Saso has won at practically all levels in her young golf career, from local tournaments hosted by her godfather International Container Terminals Services, Inc., to the World Junior Golf, the Asian Games, the LPGA Japan Tour and the LPGA.
The 19-year-old Fil-Japanese has made a killing at the Japanese Tour, where she is currently fourth on the money list with earnings of ¥97,721,942 (P42 million) following wins in the NEC Karuizawa Championship and the Nitori Ladies Golf Tournament, even though she has already left the tour for the more lucrative LPGA. And it helps that the Olympics will be held in Japan, Saso’s other “home
“I actually already played there, the golf course was really good. They changed everything, and it’s all in good condition,” said Saso, referring to the Olympic golf venue the Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Early in the year, Saso, on account of her Japan success, was named the Philippine Sportswriters Association’s Athlete of the Year for the second time. The award was considered special as it was achieved during a pandemic year.
Before the said year ended, Saso showed she belongs with the world’s best following a strong 13th-place finish right on her rookie year in the Women’s US Open won by South Korea’s Kim A-Lim.
Entering 2021, Yuka ranked 45th in the world. She is now in the Top 10, jumping 32 places from no. 40 into the Top 10 at no. 8 in the women’s world golf rankings.
According to qualification rules, 60 players in each of the men’s and women’s events will make it to the list of Olympic qualifiers by June 21 for the men’s side and June 28 for the women’s. Saso, together with Pagdanganan (currently ranked no. 42) and Pagunsan (51st) clinched Olympic berths by virtue of this.
Pagdanganan takes pride in the fact that she is currently one of the longest-hitters, if not the longest hitter, in the LPGA, which labels her as the “future and a revolutionary figure of women’s pro golf,” not just because of her immense power, but also because of her character and the promise that she brings to the sport.
The 24-year-old Pagdanganan has been captivating observers with her relaxed demeanor and prodigious power since making her pro debut in July of last year. She finished tied ninth in her first major, the PGA Championship, and was then tied for third at the Drive On Championships behind winner Ally McDonald and world number five Danielle Kang to rocket to 43rd in the 2020 money list after playing only six events.
But it’s her power off the tee that turns heads.
“Yeah, she whacks it,” said Haley Moore, her NCAA championship-winning teammate at the University of Arizona. “We were like, ‘Oh man, don’t try to keep up with her. She bombs it.”
Pagdangan’s father Sam says Bianca wants to be “the first woman to average 300 yards” (in driving distance). She is close to that goal as she leads the tour with 288.8 yards, six yards further than the next best.
But to be the best in driving distance isn’t Pagdanganan’s only ambition.
“It was always her goal to play in the Olympics,” said three-time Junior World champion and coach Carito Villaroman, who handled Pagdanganan since she was 11. “All the things that she has been working on is in preparation for her campaign in the upcoming Tokyo Games.”
The 43-year-old Pagunsan has earned points in the men’s division to make it to the quadrennial meet after conquering the 2021 Mizuno Open for his first Japan Golf Tour title last May 30 at the Setonaikai Golf Club in Okayama, Japan.
The former Asian Golf Tour top earner bagged the P5.2-million top prize in winning the crown.
As of this writing, Pagunsan is expected to toughen up even further by competing in the prestigious British Open on July 15-18 at Royal St. George’s Golf Course in England.
Floro said the three Filipino qualifiers have a certain advantage when golf in the Tokyo Games is held from July 29 to Aug. 7.
“It’s summer in Tokyo and the weather is quite similar to the Philippines. So, they will be very comfortable,” said Floro.
Being a Fil-Japanese, Saso should also feel at home being based in Japan, same as Pagunsan, a 43-year-old mainstay of the Japan Tour the past four or five years.
At 7,111 yards, the course will play longer than most courses, and this will also give the edge to the Filipinos, who are known as long-hitters, especially Pagdanganan.
“The longer the course will be to our advantage,” said Floro, noting that with three entries, the Philippines has the biggest a triple chance to win an Olympic medal in golf this year.