JOHNS CREEK, GEORGIA | When Yuka Saso tees it up Thursday in the first round of the KPMG Women’s PGA, it will be the first time she’ll be introduced as a major champion. And It will be the first time she competes as an LPGA Tour member, a bonus that came along with the $1 million first prize at the U.S. Women’s Open.
And all of that heads her way at a very tender age. Saso, who was 19 when she won the U.S. Women’s Open, turned 20 on June 20. But make no mistake about it, she’s ready for the challenges ahead, just as she was ready for the major test she faced at The Olympic Club earlier this month.
Yuka made that statement loud and clear with birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 in the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open to get into a playoff with Nasa Hataoka. And she put an exclamation point at the end of that declarative sentence with a birdie on the third playoff hole to win.
When told LPGA Tour membership came with her victory, Saso at first thought that meant she had to play the next tournament, which did not fit into her hectic post-major schedule. When told she didn’t have to play she just had to decide whether she would accept membership, Saso broke into a broad smile and flashed two thumbs up.
“I didn't know that I would get an exemption to be a member on LPGA,” she said Wednesday at Atlanta Athletic Club. “So first, I'm very grateful and thankful that they've given me a chance of playing here. It's been my dream. I think I'm more focused now on playing here and I think improving my game more, learn from the best golfers here in the LPGA.”
A lot has changed for Saso since becoming a major champion, beyond shifting her focus from the Japan LPGA to the LPGA Tour. She learned rather quickly the benefits that come with winning one of the premier events in women’s golf. Having a major championship trophy at home opens a lot of doors.
Saso built her golf swing by watching video of Rory McIlroy and when viewed side-by-side, the swings of Yuka and Rory are remarkably similar. After her victory at The Olympic Club near San Francisco, Saso traveled down the California coast to Torrey Pines to watch the U.S. Open – and meet her idol, with a little help from the USGA.
“It's been great,” she said about post-U.S. Women’s Open life. “I met Rory. I met Phil. And (got a little) advice from Rory. I'll keep it secret. But I walked with him for three holes and videoed his swing, my own video. He was very nice, and all the questions that I had, he answered me with honesty. I think he was very sincere.”
The victory in the U.S. Women’s Open also guarantees Saso a spot on the women’s team from the Philippines in the Tokyo Olympics this August. That will be a big deal both because she’s won twice on the JLPGA and because her father is Japanese.
“I think it will be a different experience compared to majors because I never really thought or watched golf in the Olympics,” Saso said. “I think it's a good chance to meet different athletes from different countries and I think learn from them, too.”
Saso tied Inbee Park as the youngest U.S. Women’s Open champion at 19 years, 11 months and 17 days. And she joined a half-dozen other teens who’ve won LPGA Tour majors. Lydia Ko is the youngest at 18 years, 4 months and 20 days (2015 Amundi Evian Championship). The others are Brooke Henderson (2016 Women’s PGA); Morgan Pressel (2007 ANA Inspiration); Lexi Thompson (2014 ANA) and Yani Tseng (2008 Women’s PGA).
“Yeah, I did,” Saso said with a broad smile when asked if she slept with her trophy like Jon Rahm did after he won the U.S. Open last week. “I posted on Instagram. Actually, my trophy stayed on the bed and I stayed on the couch. No, just kidding. Yeah, I slept with my trophy, yeah.”
But while Yuka is enjoying the past, she also has her mind focused on the present and the challenge ahead at historic Atlanta Athletic Club.
“I think the heat,” she said about specific challenges. “I think it's going to be really hot, very humid,” she said, which is a far cry from the chilly marine layer that enveloped The Olympic Club for most of the U.S. Women’s Open.
“And the golf course,” she said. “It's very beautiful and long, and it rained three days in a row, I think, so it was a little bit wet, played longer. I think I need to hit good tee shots down the fairway so I'll have a chance to get on the green.”
Part of the joy of Yuka Saso is that she combines the innocence of her youth with enormous physical skills and a disarming maturity for someone still a teenager. Saso is the newest major champion on the LPGA Tour, but everything about her suggests she is not a story that is going to get old very soon. There are more chapters to write.