By WAYLON GALVEZ
Yuka Saso was on the ‘My Day’ story of her idol Rory McIlroy hours before she and third round leader Lexi Thompson of the United States teed off for the final round of the 76th edition of the US Women’s Open championship.
The message of McIlroy, a former world No. 1 golfer, to Saso was short and sweet.
In McIlroy’s Instagram in which Saso was tagged, he said: “Great playing the last few days.” “Go finish it out today and get that trophy (emoticon trophy).”
Saso did not disappoint McIlroy as she displayed nerves of steel to produce a comeback for the ages and stand tallest among the giants in the major event Sunday that delighted the nation once again.
The 19-year-old Saso buried a 10-foot birdie putt on the third playoff hole to beat Nasa Hataoka of Japan and become the first Filipino to win the prestigious title.
That inspiring final round performance of Saso was all about hearth and determination as she came back from a six-stroke deficit off Thompson to force a playoff with Hataoka.
Saso and Hataoka finished the regulation at four-under-par 280. The former shot a two-over-par 73, while the latter fired a three-under-par 68. Thompson carded a 75 for 281.
The 14-time champion Thompson missed joining the playoff following a bogey on 18 – one of four she committed in the final round, which also featured a double bogey on 11 to go with just a pair of birdies on 1 and 5 after a bogey-free third round.
Still holding her putter when poured with champagne by a member of her contingent, Saso, who had back-to-back double bogeys early in the round, celebrated the victory as she gave fist bumps to several Filipinos in attendance on her way to the trophy presentation ceremony.
“I don’t know what’s happening in the Philippines right now, but I’m just thankful that there’s so many people in the Philippines cheering for me,” said Saso, who now owns three titles as a professional, the first two were in the Japan LPGA Tour where she is a regular.
“I don’t know how to thank them. They gave me so much energy. I want to say thank you to everyone.”
For winning the title, Saso earned a four-day paycheck of $1 million, or approximately P48 million. Also, the double gold medal winner in the Asian Games in 2018 earned a LPGA Tour membership for the next five years.
Saso likewise matched South Korean Park In-bee as the youngest winners in the championship’s history at 19 years, 11 months and 17 days. She is set to see action in next month’s Tokyo Olympics.
One of the happiest persons for the Fil-Japanese’s giant win was McIlroy.
McIllroy said: “Everyone’s going to be watching Yuka Saso swing videos on YouTube now. Congratulations!”
It was no secret that Saso patterned her game – particularly her swing – to the Northern Ireland native, who has won a total of 19 pro titles, including five in the major championships.
“Rory mentioned me on Instagram, and saying “Get that trophy” – and I did. So, thank you Rory,” said Saso during the trophy presentation as the 76th winner of the tournament.
Saso, who started the final round just one-stroke behind Thompson at six-under, had a woeful start as she double bogeyed the second and third holes. Although she birdied the 7th, her bogey on 11th put her at two-under, four shots off Thompson, who double bogeyed the same hole.
The two-time Philippine Sportswriter Association (PSA) Athlete of the Year, however, didn’t give up.
Saso pushed towards the end and made the big shots with birdies on the 16th and 17th , which put her on level with Thompson at four-under. By the time the two reached the 18th hole, Hataoka was already waiting at the clubhouse – with her own four-under for the tournament.
“I was actually upset,” said Saso, who missed a long birdie putt that could have won her the title outright.
However, she was calmed down by her caddie.
“My caddie talked to me, said there’s still many holes to go,” she said.
“Just keep doing what I was doing the last few days and trust the process.”
Saso’s final round 73 was the first time she went over par after a 69-67-71 in the first three rounds. Hataoka charged into contention in the final round with six birdies to go with a bogey and a double-bogey.
Thompson finished third, Megan Khang of the US and China’s Changshang Feng placed tied for fourth and fifth at 282, while AngelYin of the US was at solo sixth at 284.