The 19-year-old, who has been racking up trophies and multi-million prize money, just won the US Women’s Open Championship. Up next: the Olympics and LPGA membership, maybe?
“I just don’t want to be selfish. Everyone here is a great player,” says Yuka Saso, fresh off winning the 2021 US Women’s Open Championship where she edged out Japan’s Nasa Hataoka in three playoff holes.
The golfer was asked at the post-tournament press conference how her desire for everyone to play well can fit in such a high-pressure situation where competitiveness is expected. “I just want to cheer [for] everybody,” she says. “If it’s their time, it’s their time. If it’s my time, it’s my time.”
And it was definitely her time at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where she recovered from back-to-back double bogeys and a bit of stomach pain to become the first Filipina to win the major golf title. And, at 19 years, 11 months, and 17 days old, she also ties with South Korean Inbee Park as the youngest winner of the event.
“I feel great and I feel thankful to everyone who’s been supporting me,” says Saso, who adds that she is thankful for everyone cheering for her in the Philippines. At the Open, flag-waving Filipinos were seen all around, perhaps from nearby Daly City, which has been referred to as “Little Manila.”
She also found support from former world number one Rory McIlroy, who, after seeing a viral video of Saso perfectly imitating his swing, told the Fil-Japanese to get that trophy.” And she did.
Star on the rise
Saso’s rise in the international golfing circuit has been, simply put, phenomenal. In the last three years alone, she’s bagged gold medals at the Asian games, won a pair of titles at the cutthroat and prize money at the LPGA of Japan tour, and has so far earned Athlete of the Year honors from the Philippine Sportswriters Association.
Born to a Japanese father and a Filipina mother (Masakazu and Fritzie, respectively), Saso started training in golf when she was eight years old. This meant a rigorous daily routine that included early morning jogging and long days at the driving range.
But the girl was determined and talented, and grew up to be a talented young woman. Just months after joining the Japanese circuit last year, she became a multimillionaire by taking the NEC Karuizawa 72 and the Nitori Ladies Golf Tournament trophies. Those wins amount to almost P30 million in just over three months of playing.
A couple of months before this weekend’s Major tournament, she finished tied for sixth at the 2021 Lotte Championships behind eventual winner Lydia Ko of New Zealand. She lead in the first half of the tournament in Hawaii, but eventually succumbed to a double bogey.
Saso, thankfully, held her nerve in California. American Lexi Thompson, a teenage sensation herself 10 years ago, collapsed in the final day and let go of a five-shot lead, allowing others to sneak past her.
After digging herself into a hole early on, Saso was quite upset. But after her caddy reminded her that there are still many holes to play, and to just trust in herself, the young athlete re-focused and climbed back up.
She also was dealing with some physical constrints. “Actually, my stomach hurt a little after finishing up my 18 holes,” she admits. “After the two-hole play-off, I ate [a] banana and that made me feel better.”
At the press con, the teen couldn’t stop expressing just how grateful she was for the support that she has been receiving. “I’m just thankful that so many people are cheering for me in the Philippines,” she says. “I don’t know how to thank them, they gave me so much energy. I want to say thank you to everyone.”
As for what’s next, there are still many things to discuss with her family and her team, not the least of which are the Tokyo Summer Games and whether or not to join the main LPGA circuit. It seems that Saso is trying not be overwhelmed and wants to pace herself and her sports star status at bay.
“Madami pa pong tournaments,” she says. “So focus na lang muna ako doon sa upcoming tournaments. But super excited po ako for the Olympics.”
Banner Photo from @USWomensOpen on IG