Hong Kong (AFP) – When a little-known teenager from the Philippines burst into the spotlight of world golf by winning the US Women‘s Open last year, it changed her life, but left some tough decisions ahead of her.
Yuka Saso will enjoy the new experience of defending a major next week. But at Pine Needles, she will be playing under another flag, the crimson red circle of Japan.
Saso, who was born in the Philippines and has a Filipina mother and a Japanese father, has been distressed by the “very difficult” decision to switch allegiance to her father’s land.
Japan does not allow adults to hold dual citizenship, leaving Saso with a heartbreaking choice to make before he turns 21 next month.
“I grew up in the Philippines and played big events with the Filipino flag next to my name, so it was a big decision,” she told AFP.
“It was very difficult…I’m a professional golfer. I needed to make a decision that was good for my job.”
The scales have been tipped by the Japanese passport making it easier to travel in a post-pandemic world.
“I think everyone knows the Japanese passport is more powerful, it takes less work with things outside of golf,” Saso said via video call from the United States.
The Philippines will always hold a special place in Saso’s heart – she won two gold medals for the country at the 2018 Asian Games and played for them again at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
“I felt very honored to represent my mother’s country, these great events… all these memories,” Saso said.
“I hope people won’t think that I gave up on the Philippines, because I love the Philippines. I also love Japan.
“It’s still the same me, it’s just the flag.”
Advice from McIlroy
Twelve months ago, Saso arrived in San Francisco as a little-known golfer who had won a few events on the Japan LPGA Tour.
By the time she left the Olympic Club, after only her seventh start on the LPGA Tour, Saso had become the first female or male golfer from the Philippines to win a major tournament.
“Being able to win the US Open was awesome and getting an LPGA card was my dream,” she said.
“It changed my life and since then I have learned a lot inside and outside the golf course.”
The victory propelled her from No. 40 in the world to the top 10 and earned her a five-year exemption on the elite LPGA Tour.
“I was playing the Japan Tour and having a great company like AXA, even before the US Open, gave me confidence to push myself further.”
Even better, the major victory gave Saso the chance to meet his idol Rory McIlroy at the men’s US Open the following week.
Saso’s fluid swing is remarkably similar to that of the four-time Major champion from Northern Ireland. It is not a coincidence.
“It’s true that I tried to copy his swing,” she laughed, revealing the duo stayed in touch after reuniting at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I don’t really want to bother him, I know how busy he is. But whenever I have questions he always answers and gives advice,” Saso said.
“One of my dreams is to be able to play with him one day.”
Pine Needles in the windswept dunes of North Carolina will present a different challenge for Saso, who won his first major along the Pacific Coast with a kneeling birdie on the third playoff hole.
Saso, who felt Pine Needles would be “a very difficult course” after practicing there this month, was not even nine when she decided to take up golf – and swore that she would win the US Open.
“My dad loved watching golf. In 2010, we were watching the US Open when Paula Creamer won,” she recalled.
“And I said to my dad, ‘I want to win this trophy’ – at the age of eight and a half when I had just started playing golf!” she laughed.
“My dad said to me, ‘Are you sure? I think you should just focus on other things because when you’re looking for something like being a professional athlete, you have to make a lot of sacrifices.’
“But I didn’t understand all that, because I was so young. So I just said to him, ‘I want to be a professional golfer’.”
Eleven years later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Masakazu Saso stood at the edge of the green to see his daughter’s early prediction come true.
“It was very heartwarming because my dad was there, even though my mom wasn’t there,” Saso said.
“I just felt like I was very grateful for their help because without my family, I wouldn’t be here.”
© 2022 AFP