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Potential realized

Saso thumps NEC Japan LPGA field with a final-round performance to remember, establishing a first for a Filipino while running away with P6.6 million in prize money
05:20 AM August 17, 2020

Strong, with a work ethic that’s out of this world and a focus belying her tender, teenaged years, Yuka Saso on Sunday fulfilled the promise of her potential and is looking forward to coming home to family and enjoying the fruits of it all—a bounty unheard of from a Filipino athlete as young as she is.

With seven birdies and an eagle, the 19-year-old reigning Asian Games gold medal winner ruled the NEC Karuizawa leg of the Japan LPGA in runaway style, closing out with a mind-boggling nine-under-par 63 for a four-shot win to write something positive for the Philippines in these very trying times of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“It hasn’t sunk in yet. I just want to rest,” Saso told Inquirer Golf Monthly a few hours after the win. “Now I can go home and be with family again. That has been the best thing that happened to me during this pandemic, being with family.”

Saso, like in the way she ruled the Asiad in Jakarta, converted on an eagle try from 8 feet on the 16th hole to bury all pursuers, taking a four-shot lead going into the final two holes that sealed the first-ever victory by a Filipino on what is considered as one of the toughest tours in the world.

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“I just kept pushing and tried to hit all my shots well,” Saso said of her mind-set going to the 16th, where she held a two-shot lead before bombing a 200-yard approach with a 6-iron to 8 feet for that eagle, winding up with a 54-hole 200 tally after opening up with a 66 on Friday.

Saso’s length has been pronounced in this tournament—on how she has added to that enormous gift since the Asiad.

In Jakarta in 2018, she had a 4-iron from just over 200 yards to the par-5 18th green and putted from about 15 feet from the fringe. She made that to complete a sweep of the individual and team golds for the Philippines—which was also the country’s first golds in the event in the Asiad.

While she reportedly couldn’t pocket the bonuses promised by the government and the private sector for the Asiad conquest, Saso has the P6.6-million top prize in the NEC at her disposal.

Counting the P4 million she won for placing fifth in the Earth Mon­dah­min Cup in June and her first paycheck worth P500,000 for sharing 25th in ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, her winnings have already exceeded P11 million—not bad for someone who missed the cut in her first pro event, the ISPS Handa Classic.And she really is just starting to get the groove of things.

“That’s the first of many more [victories],” said former national coach and ex-Philippine Open champion Rick Gibson, who was the nonplaying skipper of Team Philippines in Jakarta where he saw the potential of Saso. “I’m certain about that (more wins). She has the power and the focus balanced with a great sense of humor.”

It wasn’t really a breeze for Saso, despite the four-shot win over Saito Fujita and Mai Wakabayashi.

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“Before the final round, I was still looking for consistency, especially after my second round 72,” she said after failing to follow up a brilliant opening 66.

Starting the day in third spot behind coleaders Miyu Goto and Mao Saigo, Saso drained five birdies in her first nine holes to take control and put a vice grip on the lead.

“I wasn’t paying attention to the leaderboard, especially since it was digital and the names were changing so fast,” Saso said. “I didn’t want to think that I was winning. I always believe that anything can happen in golf and it’s not over until it’s over.”

Saso was the one to say it was over, when she drilled that 6-iron on the 16th and left everyone eating her dust.

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