Saso vowed at age 8 to someday be world No. 1

The Associated Press
Yuka Saso celebrates her victory during the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament in San Francisco on Sunday.
The Yomiuri Shimbun

SAN FRANCISCO — Eleven years have passed since she vowed, at just the age of 8, to someday be ranked No. 1 in the world.

Now 19, Yuka Saso has taken a big step closer to that goal with her victory in the U.S. Women’s Open, the most prestigious tournament in women’s golf, on Sunday. Her victory stemmed from her determination to work harder than anyone else, including moving to her mother’s home country of the Philippines for a better practice environment when she was in the third grade of elementary school.

Saso, whose father is Japanese, is the third female golfer with a connection to Japan to win a major, following Hinako Shibuno at the Women’s British Open in 2019 and Hisako Higuchi at the U.S. Women’s PGA Championship in 1977.

“When I saw the names of all the great champions of the past, I couldn’t believe my name would be added to the list,” Saso said at a press conference. She expressed her joy in three languages: Japanese, English and Tagalog.

Saso held her trophy and smiled with an expression suggesting that she still couldn’t believe her victory. On the final day of the tournament, Saso was in second place at one shot behind the leader. She was upset when she made two double bogeys in a row, but recovered with two consecutive birdies later.

Saso ultimately won in a playoff against Nasa Hataoka, 22.

Born in the Philippines, Saso moved to Japan when she was 4. She had difficulty making friends due to the language barrier and her reclusive personality, so she accompanied her father Masakazu, now 63, when he practiced golf. She fell in love with the sport after watching the U.S. Women’s Open on TV.

When she was 8, she told Masakazu that she wanted to be a professional golfer. Her father told her she would have to give up many other fun things to become a professional and asked her if she was still willing. It was then that she vowed to become the world No. 1.

With strong determination, she left Japan and moved to the Philippines, where she could easily practice on a golf course on weekdays. Since then, an overwhelming amount of practice has become her daily routine. She strengthens her muscles by wearing two kilograms of weight on each foot, for example, and practices on long courses, which are rare in Japan.

Even if golfer friends join her practice to learn the secrets of her strength, they end up leaving soon because her regime is so hard. Masakazu said, “They say they never want to come back, and [Saso] ends up on her own.” She also studied English for three hours every day.

Saso quickly rose to prominence in the Philippines and participated in numerous international competitions with a national amateur team.

She failed once to make the U.S. women’s tour, but made her debut on the Japan tour last year and proved her ability with two wins.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Saso will represent the Philippines, which has been the foundation of her golf career. She is considering choosing Japanese citizenship after the Olympics.

Saso held up the trophy with Masakazu, who was there to see her win.

“I’m only 19. I think I still have a long way to go, so I want to keep working hard,” she said, expressing her never-ending desire to improve.