MOVE over, Manny Pacquiao, the country has a new sports superstar.
Here comes Yuka Saso who, Sunday in the US (Monday in Manila), made history by becoming the youngest winner of the US Women’s Open golf championship. At 19 years, 11 months and 17 days, she matched Inbee Park’s record, the South Korean ace, who won the US Open at exactly the same age in 2008.
For those who worry Pacquiao’s legacy might be in jeopardy, relax. Pacquiao remains far and away the greatest Filipino athlete of all time. The man is not only a Philippine hero, he is idolized globally, and is the only Filipino who can command attention anywhere in the world. His record as world boxing champion in eight different divisions remains out of this world. To see it broken means to see the world declared flat first.
Yuka Saso is unlikely to become a Manny Pacquiao, even if she wins many more majors. But for now, this daughter of a Filipino mother and a Japanese father is on top of women’s golf after winning one of the most prestigious titles against a field definitively the strongest this year.
Saso did it by overcoming nerves in the early part of the final round at The Olympic Club in San Francisco where she had double bogeys on second and third holes, and fell from one stroke behind leader Lexi Thompson, the popular American, to seven strokes behind after a Thompson birdie on the fifth. At the turn, however, Saso was still five strokes behind.
Under normal circumstances, such a misfortune would have led to total collapse. But Saso showed stuff no one thought she had. She steadied herself, thanks in part to her caddy who shored up her confidence (Don’t worry, there are still many holes left, he said.). She then made clutch putts for birdies on 16th and 17th, both par 5s, to force a playoff for the title against Japan’s Nasa Hataoka. Both finished at 4-under-par 280 while Thompson was at 3-under after bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes.
During the playoff, both Saso and Hataoka made pars on the 9th and 18th holes in the two-hole aggregate match, and moved on to the third playoff hole, again at the ninth, this time in sudden death.
This was where Saso showed that she has matured beyond her years. Her tee shot drifted to the right rough, while Hataoka’s was right in the middle of the fairway. Showing no panic, Saso calmly put her ball eight feet below the hole, while Hataoka failed to capitalize on her good tee shot, with her approach falling far short.
After a missed birdie putt by Hataoka, Saso drained hers, then jumped into the history books.
To put things in perspective, the US Women's Open is not your ordinary event. It is the biggest, most hotly contested women’s golf championship. If any player should wish to win just one major in her lifetime, this is the one.
Played in the most difficult courses under the USGA rotation, the US Women’s Open cements the reputation of a winner and lodges her name in one of the most illustrious lists in women’s golf. That a Filipino’s name is now engraved forever in that list and in the huge trophy that comes with winning gives Saso that rare kind of championship. It makes her feel like she’d won an Olympic gold medal.
No one saw Saso’s victory coming so soon, and at a major at that. Surely, she has the gravitas to become possibly the country’s best golfer ever. In time, anyway. She turned professional just three years ago and her maiden bid to enter the LPGA Tour had ended in disappointment.
Undeterred, she did the next best thing, which is to compete in the Japan women’s professional tour, the JLPGA, where, on her rookie year, she won two tournaments, was in the Top 10 eight times, led the rankings, and is second on the money list.
Even as she made a big splash in Japan, her mind was obviously always on the LPGA. While she may be satisfied with the bounties from the Japan Tour, the challenge remained in the US where the best players compete and where every golfer wants to test her skills.
It is no wonder she would leave Japan to compete in the US when the opportunity came, enduring many weeks of quarantine and missed tournaments upon returning to Japan, as was the case when she played at the ANA Inspiration and then at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii last April.
The Japan Tour had benefits. It obviously shaped her game and her mind. It gave her tenacity — and it convinced her she was ready for the big time, especially after she placed 16th on a tie in the US Women's Open last December, shared 50th in the Ana Inspiration, and landed sixth at the Lotte Championship.
The US Women’s Open has proved her right. She was ready for the big time and, it is hoped, she will go big time in more triumphs to come.