(Reuters) – Earning an LPGA Tour card following her maiden major triumph at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open was a “life-changing” experience for Yuka Saso, the Japanese-Filipino golfer told Reuters on Wednesday.
Saso battled back from a horror start to win the title in a sudden death playoff in San Francisco last June, earning a five-year Tour card and announcing herself as a new force in women’s golf, which is largely dominated by South Koreans.
“It was life-changing,” the Philippines-born 20-year-old said in an interview from the United States.
“Since then I’ve been playing on the LPGA Tour and every single week I have been learning a lot and really enjoying my journey, so I’m very grateful.
“It’s not even a year yet but everyone is great. They’re so friendly and if I have questions, they’re all happy to help. To be on the stage I always dreamt about is awesome.”
The world number 15 said she would be heading into the unknown when she defends her title at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in North Carolina next month.
“It’ll be my first tournament as defending champion so I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Saso.
“I don’t know what to expect, so I’ll try to enjoy it, try to prepare the way I do for other events … I’ve been working on my overall game.
“It’s a long process but I’m trying to enjoy everything and not rush anything. But no major changes or anything.”
Saso, the daughter of a Filipino mother and Japanese father, first shot to prominence at the 2018 Asian Games, where she won individual and team gold medals for the Philippines.
She represented her mother’s nation when she won her major and at the Tokyo Olympics last year but has opted to play for her father’s country since last November in order to retain her Japanese passport.
“I’m very proud of being half Japanese and half Filipino,” said Saso, who had to make the call before her 22nd birthday under Japanese law.
“Everyone knows how powerful a Japanese passport is and in the job we have, we always travel and to have ease with travel documents will help a lot outside the golf course.
“It wasn’t really a switch, because I’m both. It’s another journey that I get to represent my dad’s country and I’m very grateful for that.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, because everyone is used to seeing my name and having the flag of the Philippines next to it, but I’m hoping everyone can understand and be happy.”
Saso said she hoped to compete in the Asian Games, which were scheduled to be held in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in September but postponed until 2023 because of the COVID-19 situation in the country.
“It’s understandable,” Saso said of China’s decision. “I think safety comes first … But for other athletes it’s not easy because they have been preparing for years for that event.
“Hopefully they will be understanding and try to be patient and get ready for it.”
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)