The moment she burst into the scene before she even reached her teens, Yuka Saso already showed a glimpse of how special she could be.
In May of 2014, she captured the Jack Nicklaus Juniors title in China a month before she turned 13 years old. She followed it up by winning the Jakarta Junior World Championship the next month, the Annual Costa Mesa Championship in California in August, and the Sabah International Junior Masters in Kota Kinabalu in September.
Two years later, she propelled the Philippines to become the World Junior Girls team champions. The competition hosted by Canada is for junior players who have not reached 19 years old. Yuka was then just 15 years old. She emerged as the top individual performer of the tournament.
There have been a number of outstanding Filipino golfers in the past. Bantam Ben Arda, Frankie Miñoza, Jennifer Rosales, and Dorothy Delasin are largely considered the best of the lot. These golfers’ success extended to the international professional circuit.
It is not a stretch to claim that Saso, at just 20 years old, has reached the echelon of the elite Filipino golfers of all time. At the rate she had been going, she seemed poised to eclipse Arda, Miñoza, Rosales, and Delasin.
This is why it is such a big loss for the Philippines to see Saso no longer representing the country.
She announced late last that she was going to choose her Japanese citizenship over her Filipina citizenship when she reaches the age of 22 which will be in June of 2023. Japan nationality law compelled her to make the decision.
Saso’s list of achievements in the decade that she has competed as a Filipina has earned for her a place among the greatest not just in golf but also in the entire landscape of Philippine sports.
Her pulsating come-from-behind victory in the women’s individual golf in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games ended a drought of over three decades for the Philippines. Prior to that, the last time a Filipino golfer won an Asian Games gold was in 1986 when Ramon Brobio became champion in the men’s individual play. Saso earned another Asian Games gold as she, Bianca Pagdanganan, and Lois Kaye Go also crowned themselves champions in the team event of the same competition.
After turning pro in the Japanese LPGA in June of 2020, she won back-to-back titles, the NEC Karuizawa 72 and the Nitori Ladies Golf Tournament. Miñoza won seven championships in the Japanese tour, but he accomplished this in 17 years. Saso bagged two titles in just her third month as a rookie in the Japanese tour.
The clincher, though, will still be Saso’s history-making triumph in the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open.
She became the first-ever golfer from the Philippines to win a golf major. Delasin, who has won four LPGA titles, finished ninth in the 2005 ANA Inspiration. Rosales, herself the owner of two LPGA titles, has three top 10 finishes in the majors – tied for fourth in the 2002 British Open, tied for ninth in the 2003 ANA Inspiration, and solo fourth in the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open.
What Saso has achieved that may not be within the reach of any golfer from the Philippines anytime soon, aside of course from winning a major, is spending 29 consecutive weeks in the top 10 of the LPGA world rankings. At one point in 2021, Saso was the fifth-ranked player in the world. She ended the year as the world’s eighth-ranked golfer, earning for herself $1,517,876 from the LPGA tour which is the 6th highest among all the players.
If one adds the ¥99,985,742 which she won from her rookie year in the Japan LPGA, which when converted is around $873,566, then Saso has copped at least 2.3 million US dollars in just a year and a half as a professional golfer.
Saso is a generational talent, the type who comes only once in a lifetime for a developing country like the Philippines. She can, in fact, be likened to a Paeng Nepomuceno or a Bong Coo in bowling.
A Manny Pacquiao in boxing.
A Bata Reyes in pool
A Hidilyn Diaz in weightlifting.
Or perhaps, a Wesley So in chess.
The Philippines does not get a lot of athletes of their caliber who are good enough to win consistently on the world stage.