No pressure on Yuka

Joaquin Henson - The Philippine Star
No pressure on Yuka
Yuka Saso

TOKYO – Reigning US Open $1 million winner Yuka Saso said the other day she feels no pressure of outdoing herself after carding a three-over-par 74 and sharing 47th spot with six others in the first round of the Olympic women’s golf competition at the Kasumigaseki Country Club. Action continues in the third round today and winds up tomorrow.

Asked how she’s coping with the expectation of a strong showing, Saso said it’s not an issue. “The only thing is people now call me the US Open champion, not Yuka Saso,” she smiled. “I go out there to do what I have to do. Coach Miko (Alejandro) is fun to work with and now as my caddie, he’s guiding me. My caddie (Lionel Matichuk) suffered a heat stroke and had to be taken out of the competition and my only wish is he’s better.”

Matichuk was drained because of the heat and humidity during a practice round last Tuesday, the day before the first round. The Canadian, who lives here, was Saso’s caddie when she won at the US Open. Alejandro caddied for a friend in a Japan tournament three years ago and said he’s gotten used to lugging 27 kilos of golf links in a bag without a cart while playing in Manila during the pandemic. Carts are not allowed in the Olympic competition. “Yuka knows her game best and I just try to be available for whatever she needs,” he said.

The weather was close to unbearable in the first round. Bianca Pagdanganan’s coach/caddie Carito Villaroman finished 18 holes and in exhaustion, sat down to rest but when he got up, his vision turned blurry yellow. Villaroman was rushed to the Country Club clinic where he was hooked up to a bag of dextrose. His blood pressure was 94/75 and heart level was up to 170. After a while, he was stable and said he’ll be back on the greens with Pagdanganan the next day.

Saso and Pagdanganan are rookies on the course. When she was a junior player, Saso played on the East course of the Country Club but never on the West course where this competition is being held. “The grass isn’t to my liking,” she said. “I think it’s Korai grass and it’s not my favorite.” The par-71 layout, however, is a golfer’s dream. Pagdanganan’s father Sam said it’s comparable to Augusta. “The course favors a long hitter, perfect for Bianca and Yuka,” he said.

Saso played two practice rounds with Juvic Pagunsan on the West course then two more just before the start of the first round. Pagdanganan had two practice rounds. Saso’s father Masakazu said the heat was scorching in the first round. “Maiinit, pareho sa Pilipinas,” said Masakazu who’s Japanese. Fathers and daughters are inseparable on the golf tour. In Atlanta for a tournament after the US Open, Saso celebrated her 20th birthday in a hotel room last June with her father who ordered a small cake and Texas-style steak.

National Golf Association of the Philippines secretary-general Bones Floro said with the world’s top 60 players in the start list, anyone can win the gold. His father Dave is the late sportsman Danny Floro’s only son. Floro is basketball coach Jong Uichico’s nephew. Pagdanganan’s father said golf is a momentum game and his daughter’s back-to-back birdies to jumpstart her campaign propelled her to lead the pack after nine holes. Villaroman said he noticed that whenever Pagdanganan plays for the country, her level of performance rises. On the par-3 16th hole in the first round, she nearly had a hole-in-one, the ball rounding the lip before staying out. She’s using specially-designed Titleist balls with Philippine markings. At the last SEA Games, Pagdanganan took two golds in the individual and team events. At the 2018 Asian Games, Saso did the same.

Pagdanganan, 23, said she would put in 30-45 minutes of putting practice after the first round to work on those sharp putts that she missed. Villaroman, who has worked with her since she was 11, said the goal in the early rounds is to stay in a position to podium on the last day.

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