A star is born: Gutsy Saso snares US Open crown in sudden death

Agence France-Presse
A star is born: Gutsy Saso snares US Open crown in sudden death
Yuka Saso of the Philippines walks past fans with the Harton S. Semple Trophy after winning the 76th U.S. Women's Open Championship at The Olympic Club on June 06, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Saso won following a three-hole playoff against Nasa Hataoka of Japan.
Ezra Shaw / Getty Images / AFP

MANILA, Philippines – A double-bounce would always mark Nasa Hataoka’s pre-shot routine, but Yuka Saso made the biggest leap to stardom when she captured the US Women’s Open crown in a fashion so bizarre perhaps only a player of her caliber could dish out.

Saso confidently stroked a delicate, curling putt from 10 feet worth a whopping $1 million (P48 million) on the third playoff hole (No. 9), edging and frustrating Hatoka at the Olympic Club’s punishing Lake course — particularly for American Lexi Thompson — and completing a short journey from virtual obscurity to golfing fame just in her third official crack at a major championship.

Though Thompson had looked very much in control and on her way to a first US Open romp after 15 tries until she cracked under tremendous pressure at the back and blew a five-stroke lead, the finale of the $5.5 million championship was replete with peculiarities. And curiously, the huge coveted Harton Semple ended up on the clutches of the Fil-Japanese shotmaker, who dreams of playing in the Olympics and becoming world No. 1 someday.

The first she would realize in the Tokyo Games next month as a shoo-in for Team Philippines. And the second? It could happen sooner than expected with her surprise feat in women's pro golf premier championship expected to boost her current world No. 40 ranking, not to mention her confidence and drive to go for more in the future.

More so, she became only the second teenager to win the Open after matching, also in odd fashion, the record Korean Inbee Park had set in 2008 — 19 years, 11 months and 17 days Sunday.

“My dream was to be world No. 1 and win the US Open. But I wasn’t thinking I would hold this trophy this week,” said Saso, who will turn 20 on June 20, after completing a historic run, becoming the first Filipina to win a Major trophy, 16 years after Jennifer Rosales had nailed her second LPGA Tour leg victory in SBS Open in Hawaii in 2005..

As an amateur, the ICTSI-backed ace missed the US Open cut in 2016, but finished joint 13th in her first major stint as a pro in Houston last December although she limped to tie for 50th in the ANA Inspiration last April.

But she said she learned a lot from her previous US Open stint, her ANA Inspiration struggle and her joint sixth place effort at the LOTTE Championship, which she led after 36 holes in Hawaii before succumbing to pressure from multi-titled Lydia Ko of New Zealand.
She again gained a solo view of the top midway through the US Women's Open and though she slipped off the lead in the third round, Saso remained very much in the hunt, just one stroke behind the red-hot Thompson, who surged ahead with a flawless 67 Saturday to spark hopes of finally ending a long Open spell.

Back-to-back double bogeys to kick off a major final drive would surely send the faint-hearted to stupor but Saso, so cool and so composed despite dropping four strokes on Nos. 2 and 3, fought back from five down with a firm resolve rarely seen in young players, completing one of the biggest comebacks in women’s pro golf's biggest stage.

“I was actually a little upset,” said Saso, referring to her shaky start marred by an errant drive, a poor second shot and a short approach on No. 2 and a three-putt miscue off the bunker on the third. “But my caddie talked to me and said: ‘Just keep on going, there are still many holes to go.’ That’s what I did.”

What she did was to battle back from five down, and aided by Thompson's harrowing collapse, Saso cashed in on and birdied the last two par-5s (Nos. 16 and 17), to salvage a closing 73 and tie Hataoka, who birdied three of the last six holes to fire a 68 and get ahead first at 280 in a flight ahead, at four-under overall.

Thompson, winless here since she first qualified as a 12-year-old 15 years ago, turned from steady (after a 34 start) to unstable at the back as she wavered when the going got tough, yielding two strokes on No. 11 and bogeying Nos. 14, 17 and 18.

She had clear chances of making it a three-way playoff but flubbed a short but pressure-packed putt from three feet on No. 17 and came up inches short of a downhiller on the 72nd hole. She wound up with a 75 for a 281.

Saso and Hataoka traded pars in the two-hole aggregate playoff (Nos. 9 and 18), sending their duel to a sudden death back on the ninth with the former failing to take advantage of her solid drives and the latter coming through with big shots from the roughs on both fairways.

Saso had the chance to wrap it all up on the second extra hole but misread a downhill putt from pin-high length, the ball rolling past the cup by some five feet, which she, however, returned with poise and confidence of a veteran major campaigner.

“I am really happy. I knew there were par-5s in the last few holes and maybe I could get my chance. After 18, I felt my stomach a little…it hurts…and I don’t know why. But I ate banana and it feels better now. This means a lot,” said Saso, who broke into regional prominence when she swept the Asian Games gold medals in Jakarta in 2018 and honed up and sharpened her skills on the Ladies Philippine Golf Tour, where she racked up victories as an amateur and as a budding pro.
Sure, opportunities will come in bunches from hereon for Saso, who is likely to stay put for the Women’s PGA Championship, the year’s third major, on June 24-27 at the Highlands Course in Atlanta.

But for now, she wants to relish her major breakthrough, sharing her milestone with her family, sponsors, friends and fans, including those from nearby Daly City, dubbed “Little Manila” for its large population of Filipinos, who backed her up in all four days of the championship marking the limited return of fans to women's pro golf.

“I don’t know what’s happening in the Philippines right now, but I’m just thankful that there’s so many people back home cheering for me,” said Saso, who fell short of her LPGA card bid in the Q-School in 2019 but made the grade on the LPGA of Japan Tour which she became her base and where she posted two victories in her maiden season.

“I don’t know how to thank them. They gave me so much energy. I want to say thank you to everyone,” she stressed.

Millions did watch her exploits back home, staying glued on TV in the wee hours Monday, silently cheering her from every mishit and missed putt, then rising as one when she dropped that last putt and half-raised her arms in triumph to herald the coming of women's pro golf's newest superstar.



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