MANILA, Philippines — Yuka Saso was just a few weeks removed from winning the Asian Games gold medal double, just three months past her 18th birthday and was on the fringe of the 18th green of Rancho Palos Verdes in Davao playing tag with Pradera Verde teammates who were 11 and 12 years old.
They had one more round to play, just 18 holes remaining to erase a three-point deficit to Manila Southwoods in order to repeat as Philippine Airlines (PAL) Ladies Interclub champion.
Bong Lopez, the Southwoods coach whose bets were leading entering the fourth round, was asked: “What do you think are your chances of unseating Pradera?”
“Slim and none, partner,” Lopez replied before pointing to Saso. “She is in a totally different league. She’s the best in the country, the best in Asia.”
Fast forward three years later and Saso is the best in the world.
Saso was a carefree spirit then, a carefree spirit now and never loses focus on the task at hand—never mind if it was just for the PAL Ladies Interclub title, a team event that doesn’t glorify anyone or any team globally.
As long as there is a tournament to be played—and won—you can bet that Yuka’s mind will be on it.
“It didn’t really matter to me how many holes we go. I just wanted to stay focused and stay in the zone,” Saso said in an interview on Monday (Manila time) after her US Women’s Open triumph at Olympic Village over Japan’s Nasa Hataoka in the third playoff hole.
‘Three Idiots’ quote
She was exceptionally composed, remarkably focused considering what was at stake — no Filipino, man or woman, had won a golf major before. And the key to her calm was hilarious.
The Inquirer’s female athlete of the year for 2020 said that when the playoff started, she kept in mind a quote from the “Three Idiots” movie to stay calm.
“All is well.”
“I watched that movie, Three Idiots. You know that movie, ‘Three Idiots’? That Indian movie with “all is well?” That’s where I got it from.”
It didn’t seem like all was well at the start of the fourth round, though, as Yuka fell six shots behind Lexi Thompson after double bogeys at Nos. 2 and 3. But her resolve showed for the rest of the round, as birdies on the par-5 16th and 17th holes pulled her level with Thompson and Hataoka before the popular American failed to make it a three-way playoff with a par putt that was horribly short from 10 feet.
Saso and Hataoka finished with identical aggregates of four-under 280, with Thompson finishing a shot back. Both protagonists were tied after two playoff holes, forcing a sudden-death hole.
Saso drilled a 10-foot birdie there, pumped her fist and celebrated with Filipino fans who followed her during the tournament.
“I don’t know what’s happening in the Philippines right now, but I’m just thankful that there’s so many people in the Philippines cheering for me,” said Saso, whose professional resume includes two Japan LPGA victories but no wins on the US LPGA tour. “I don’t know how to thank them. They gave me so much energy. I want to say thank you to everyone.”
Flashback before the PAL Interclub, on a plane to Jakarta for the Asian Games where Saso was seated beside national team coach Rick Gibson.
Formidable Asiad odds
A few minutes before touchdown, when Saso went to the toilet, the Inquirer, seated in front of Gibson asked: “Coach, how do you think we’ll do there (in the Asian Games)?”
“We have a potent women’s team made up of girls,” Gibson, a former Philippine Open champion, first said of his squad made up of teenagers Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan and Lois Kaye Go. “We have a solid team, I think. And with Yuka, we have a chance of winning a medal.”
Gibson couldn’t be specific. It was understandable why. The Philippines would be playing golf-crazy countries in Asia like Japan, South Korea and China, which, at that time, was backstopped by world’s 28th-ranked amateur in Liu Wenbo.
Team Philippines fell behind by formidable margins in the team competition and all Saso could do was sniff at Liu’s coattails in the final round before the Filipino came up with the shot of her life that broke her into international consciousness.
Saso was two-down when they stepped on the 18th tee mound of Jakarta Golf Club, a par-5 hole with a fairway bending to the left. It required a dead straight drive to gain clearance to the green. Saso nailed the drive.
‘We struck gold’
Bones Floro, a crack golfer himself, was there watching for the National Golf Association of the Philippines. He rode a cart the entire round trying to see how Saso, Pagdanganan and Go were doing.
Faced with a 210-yard second shot from the middle of the fairway to a very small target, Saso confidently pulled out a 4-iron, straightened herself for the shot and uncorked a beautifully struck shot.
Even while the ball was in flight, Floro told the Inquirer: “We struck gold, partner,” as Saso’s approach landed on the green, rolled ever slightly on the fringe pin-high about 18 feet away.
Saso made the eagle putt, while Liu, looking befuddled by what she had seen, came apart for a horrific quadruple bogey as Team PH completed a comeback for the ages and swept the women’s team and individual gold medals.
“That young lady plays without fear in her,” Floro would later say during the din of the celebration past the 18th green.
Right now, it’s the world that will be fearing Saso for what she has just done, especially the Tokyo Olympics field where she will facing basically the same competition.
Especially with how she sees her future.
“I’m not planning to change anything. Just keep (doing) what I’m doing.”