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SAN FRANCISCO – The Philippines flag soars high in the air at Olympic Club as 19-year-old Yuka Saso becomes the first Filipino woman to win the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open after a three-hole playoff against Japan’s Nasa Hataoka.
Saso hoisted the trophy on the eighth green, and tears of joy slipped down her cheeks when she saw her national flag raised by a crowd of Filipinos. She’d always dreamed of this moment and left it up to fate to decide if this would be her special week.
“Everyone here is a great player. If it's their time, it's their time, if it's my time, it's my time,” Saso said at Sunday’s press conference.
The ride to her U.S. Women's Open victory was exactly how it should be – an absolute mental grind.
Saso made back-to-back doubles, at Nos. 2 and 3, and looked done for. Lexi Thompson, who began the day one shot ahead, was 1 under at the turn and four shots ahead of Shanshan Feng, who at the time was 4 under. The tables turned on No. 11 when Lexi had a three-putt double bogey after missing the green short.
Suddenly, it didn’t look like Lexi was going to walk away with a dominating finish and victory. Saso had a chance.
“My caddie talked to me and said, just keep on going; there's many more holes to go," Saso said. "That's what I did.”
Saso then birdied No. 16, hit an incredible bunker shot on the par-5 17th for a tap-in birdie, and then rolled in a 6-footer on the 18th hole for par to force a playoff with Hataoka, who tied the low round of the day with a 3-under 68.
A playoff at a U.S. Open is determined through a two-hole aggregate playoff – meaning the sum of two holes – and if there remained a tie, it would switch to sudden death. The playoff began on No. 9 and then continued on No. 18. Both players made par, so they went back to the ninth tee.
Saso had many Filipino fans but also close friends watching her during the playoff. Two of her friends, Ohio State’s Aneka Seumanutafa and Kailie Vongsaga, began watching Saso on her back nine. Vongsaga caddied for Seumanutafa this week before the Buckeye missed the cut, but the two also got to witness a historic moment from their childhood friend.
“We were both shaking. Our hearts were racing, definitely more nervous than she was,” Seumanutafa said following the awards ceremony. “Being friends with her in junior golf and now seeing her thrive is so cool to see.”
After hitting her drive in the rough on the final playoff hole, Saso stuck her iron shot to 7 feet and rolled the putt in for the win.
“I had chills the whole time and was in tears by the end of it,” said Vongsaga.
When Yuka saw her two friends in the crowd during the awards ceremony, she went straight to them, and they had a mini celebration like it was just the three of them there, cheering and holding each other’s hands. Saso then turned toward the Filipinos, who were grouped together chanting her first name. Yuka! Yuka! Yuka! She knelt down beside them with the trophy and they surrounded her.
It was an iconic photo.
“I'm just thankful that there's so many people in the Philippines cheering for me. I don't know how to thank them. They gave me so much energy. I want to say thank you to everyone,” Saso said at her press conference, smiling to the crowd.
Not only did Saso make history, but her U.S. Open victory solidified a five-year LPGA exemption, including full status for the rest of the season, a recent rule change made by the LPGA.
Saso said she'd have to discuss her LPGA prospects with her parents first, but assuming she accepts membership, there will soon be another Philippines flag on LPGA leaderboards.
And judging Saso's special performance at Olympic, it won't be long before that flag is soaring high again.