She didn’t get the credit she deserved, at least not right away. On a cold June day in San Francisco, just across the street from the Pacific where the Northern California marine layer blew in and out of Olympic Club like an ocean wave, Yuka Saso mounted one of the best comebacks of the year to capture the U.S. Women’s Open. It was the 20-year-old’s first win outside of Japan and the first major championship for a player from the Philippines.
But in the seconds after, most of the buzz was about someone else. Lexi Thompson held a five-shot lead midway through the final round. Then Olympic did what Olympic does. The course repelled anything less than perfect shots. On any other course, Thompson likely would have won by 10. But just as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Payne Stewart and Jim Furyk discovered, no lead is safe on the hillside course by the Bay. And the tiniest of miscues can lead to historic disasters.
Most people forget that Saso had a blunder of her own, one that seemingly knocked her out of the running and rolled out the red carpet for Thompson. On the second hole, a slight dogleg right par-4 with one of Olympic’s many reverse-cambered fairways (the spot where the San Andreas Fault runs through the course) Saso hit a tremor of a tee shot so far right that Emilia Migliaccio, working for Golf Channel that week, yelled, “Oh my God. Fore right!” before the ball hit its apex.
Finding her ball in the shin-high rough was no easy task, although Saso identified it inside the three-minute wire. Then came the aftershocks. She took one whack. It didn’t go far. Then she turned sideways and got the ball back in the fairway. From there she made a double-bogey six. Thompson’s one-shot lead at the start of the day turned to three. When Saso made another double from the greenside bunker at the par-3 third, this one appeared to be all over but the shouting.
But Saso never gave up. She made three pars and then a birdie on the short par-4 seventh to put herself on the right path. She made one bogey on the back nine but put together marvelous birdies on the back-to-back par-5s, 16 and 17. Just like that, with the troubles Thompson was facing, Saso had a share of the lead with Thompson and a charging Nasa Hataoka, who shot three-under par on Sunday with a double bogey of her own on Sunday.
It all came down the last hole, as always seems to be the case at Olympic. That was the hole where Hogan found the left rough and couldn’t get out to lose the 1955 U.S. Open in a playoff to a former assistant pro at Davenport (Iowa) Country Club named Jack Fleck. It is also where Payne Stewart found a sand-filled divot that cost him the 1998 U.S. Open, won by Lee Janzen. Furyk, led much of the 2012 U.S. Open at Oakmont. But the final two holes cost him and he lost to Webb Simpson. Graeme McDowell shared that 54-hole lead with Furyk in 2012 but McDowell found a greenside bunker on 18 and couldn’t get up and down.
In this one, Saso played safely to the middle of the 18th green, leaving herself a downhill putt for birdie to win outright. Thompson, being aggressive as she had been all week, tried to stuff a wedge close to end the championship in regulation. Instead, she came up short in the bunker.
Thompson made her second consecutive bogey to shoot 75, three-under par for the championship, one more than she needed to continue into extra holes.
Saso then beat Hataoka with a birdie on the third playoff hole. And just like that, the young woman almost no one knew at the start of the week, the player who had modeled her golf swing after Rory McIlroy, was a major champion.
Grit and determination ruled the day. It would have been easy to fold the tent after back-to-back doubles. It would have been understandable to lower the intensity when Thompson opened up a five-shot lead. But Yuka Saso held firm. As a result, she is the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion.