Philippines' golf phenom Yuka Saso: "I want to be World No.1 and my dream is to win Olympic gold"
Yuka Saso became an overnight sensation at the Asian Games in 2018. In this exclusive interview, the 19-year-old talks about her ambitious goals and how she's inspired by Rory McIlroy.
"Golf was all I had," says Yuka Saso, who's blazing a trail for Filipino golf.
"I was born in Philippines, I grew up there," the 19-year-old told Olympic Channel. "But we moved to Japan when I was four or five."
"I couldn't speak Japanese and I didn't have any friends so my dad brought me to the driving range, to the golf course, that's the only thing that I did."
Saso worked hard on her swing, watching countless golf videos and knew what she wanted from a young age: "When I was nine I said to my dad, I want to be a professional golfer like Rory [McIlroy]."
Her father and life coach Masakazu - a very good golfer himself - didn't laugh, he took his daughter seriously and took her back to the Philippines at nine, where Yuka could home-school, play golf every day and work towards her dream.
Now she's 19 and it's come true: Saso turned pro in November 2019 after earning an LPGA Tour of Japan card for 2020, she's the Philippines' female No.1 and right now. She's even ranked high enough to qualify for Tokyo 2020 next summer.
Saso has been praised by former World No.1 Sung Hyun Park, and Filipina volleyball superstar Alyssa Valdez wants Yuka to teach her how to play golf!
Now Saso is once more clear about what she wants: To bring joy to Filipinos by becoming their first ever World No.1 golfer, and to finish top of an Olympic podium.
Yuka Saso swing
It was no surprise that Saso was given the card after the 2018 she had, winning the Philippines' first ever women's golf gold medal at the Asian Games, then doubling down in the team event, and coming so close to a podium finish at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games.
Known as one of the Philippines' 'Asian Games Golden Girls' alongside weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, skateboarder Margielyn Didal, and her golf teammates Bianca Pagdangangan and Lois Kaye Go, suddenly everyone back home knew her name.
"It was so big," she says, "I wasn't expecting it to be that big news in the Philippines, it was hard for me to let it to sink in. It took me maybe a week."
Her 2019 was just as impressive. A win at the Girls Junior PGA Championship in August 2019 in the U.S. with a 14-under confirmed Saso's quality and Sung Hyun Park was full of praise when she played against her at an invitational two weeks later.
“She’s good, she swings well and hits it with power. And she has a good balance,” said Park. “I was amazed when I learned that she’s only 17.”
Saso also reached the semifinals of the US Girls’ Junior Championship in Wisconsin, falling short against USA's Jillian Bourdage in the semi finals, but watch the way she gets on the green in two shots on the 10th in the video below [at 50 seconds], with a swing and laser-guided driver reminiscent of her golf idol Rory McIlroy.
Great athletes can turn negatives into positives and that's exactly what Yuka Saso is doing in the middle of a global pandemic right now.
In the Philippines, when she's not away at a tournament, Saso is up and at it from 5 a.m. working out until 7, then it's breakfast before playing 18 holes, then practice on the driving range and working on her short game before heading home by 6 p.m.
But the world has changed and like many of us. Yuka is afraid of catching COVID-19 and isn't training as much as she'd like to be right now.
"We can train but there's so many people, and I'm scared to get the virus," she says. "I'm practising if there are no people, we call the practice range and ask them if there's too many people. If there's not then I go to practice, but if there's too many people then I just stay here at home."
Saso would have hoped to continue her rise through the golf rankings. After turning pro her results had her making the cut for Tokyo 2020, and she was preparing for her first Olympic Games.
But now with tournaments cancelled, the rankings frozen, and the Tokyo Olympics set to take place in 2021, she's enjoying some quality family time in Tokyo.
"When I started playing golf I didn't really have a lot of time to spend with my family. Right now it feels special because I've almost stayed with them a half-year now so it's really relaxing, it feels like home."
BTS, TWICE, Blackpink and Rory McIlroy
Music, movies, and Rory McIlroy are helping her get through these strange times too, "BTS are fine but they're not my favourite," she says, "I like TWICE, Blackpink, Sam Smith, Daniel Padilla, he looks really good, I like him!"
Her favourite films include Lucy, Transformers, The Avengers, "I like Batman and Spiderman" she adds.
So does she consider herself a golf superhero?
"No, not really. I don't know if I'm a golf superhero or a good influence in the Philippines but if someone's saying that, then I feel happy."
As an ambassador of the game, Saso also wants golf to become more popular in her basketball-crazy country, and would love to see kids have more access to the game.
"In the Philippines there's a lot of young players who want to play golf but they don't have enough money, they couldn't afford to play in the tournament so they can't go. But if we can all support them then maybe they can all go and experience an international tournament."
"The Philippine association, they're doing their best to support young players," she says.
Rory McIlroy has been helping her in lockdown too, "I watch Rory almost everyday on YouTube, I watch him maybe an hour or so, and then I watch a movie and sleep."
"I like his swing, I like how he hits the ball and I like how he plays, how he manages the golf course and I like his attitude on the course."
You can see the Irishman's influence on Saso's game too, not just with the length of her drive (She hits around 280m) but with the accuracy of it, landing on the green from big booming drives that give her plenty of birdie and eagle opportunities.
Yuka Saso at the Asian Games 2018
Saso really announced herself at the Jakarta-Palembang Games in Indonesia.
"Going to the Asian Games, it was like a mini-Olympics," she says, "it's a very big tournament and there's a lot of high-ranked players so the pressure was different."
"That double gold was unexpected though!" Laughs the 19-year-old. "We were really happy. Going to the last hole we were three down and when you're down by three you don't think you're going to win, it was so emotional."
Gold looked really unlikely after a double bogey on the 17th where she hooked her drive into the hazard, giving her opponent China's Liu Wenbo a two-shot lead heading into the final hole.
"So my only mindset is really eagle," she continued. "Of course I have a lot of pressure while walking but that's it, the eagle is really on my mind."
That positive visualisation worked, she eagled the par-5 18th with a clutch putt from from 10 feet, and Liu, feeling the pressure, could only quadruple-bogey, the Pinay hitter made history by winning her country's first ever women's golfing gold at an Asian Games.
She wasn't ready for the reaction back home.
"It was so big, I wasn't expecting it to be that big news in the Philippines, it was hard for me to let it to sink in. It took me maybe a week, when we came back to the Philippines and everyone was saying 'oh you won two gold medals'... I was like, did I really win those gold medals? It took me a while!"
Multiple interviews and TV rolling news slots, praise and awards, Yuka had to get used to it fast.
"It was actually really fun because I didn't really have those things before so it was good to experience."
But she didn't know how to react when volleyball and reality TV star Alyssa Valdez said she wanted golf lessons with her.
Valdez told Rappler "I really want someone to teach me because I haven't had formal golf training, so I want to be trained by a golf champion, I'm really looking forward to watch her live."
The Creamline Cool Smashers captain believes golf can teach volleyball players a lot and is often seen on the fairway with boyfriend Kiefer Ravena.
"Golf challenges you to stay focussed," Alyssa said. "You have to be really patient."
Saso says she would love to meet, teach golf, and learn volleyball with Valdez.
Yuka Saso and Alyssa Valdez
"When I saw that I was like, wow," laughs Saso, affirming that she would love to give Alyssa some lessons, in exchange for some smashing tips from the outside hitter.
"I haven't met her ever but I wish to meet her and see her play volleyball, and maybe she can teach me how to smash too! I feel shy to message her first, but I heard she's a really good person."
Saso draws from a wide range of golfing influences and inspirations.
"Other than Rory," she said with a smile. "Annika Sorenstam, Ryo Ishikawa and Ai Miyazato from Japan and of course Tiger Woods."
She may even get a chance to meet Rory and Tiger in Tokyo should both qualify.
Yuka Saso at Buenos Aires YOG 2018
But Tokyo 2020 in 2021 wouldn't be Saso's first ever Olympic experience as she took part in the Youth Olympic Games in 2018.
It took place a couple of months after her Asian Games victories, and once again she was in the running for a medal, despite challenging conditions at the Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires.
Three birdies in the first 9 holes and a strong finish left her 4 over par on the third and final day of strokeplay.
"After we finished our coach said maybe I have a chance to get a silver or bronze, there's a three-way play-off," explains Saso. Australia's Grace Kim had claimed gold and Italy's Alessia Nobilio, Emma Spitz of Austria and Saso all finished on the same score of 214.
But the nerves built for Yuka.
"I've been in a few play-offs but I just didn't have the confidence," she recalls. "I was telling my coach I don't know how to feel about it, I don't know how to play the play-off holes and he was giving me tips but it just wouldn't stay in my mind."
A single dropped shot on a putt she'd normally sink cost Yuka a YOG medal as the Italian Nobilio claimed silver and Spitz bronze.
Watch highlights of that exciting final day of action below.
But as always, Saso took away the positives.
"So I think that's the thing that I need to improve, my confidence in play-off situations."
"It was great experience," she remembers. "The golf course is something we don't have in Asia, or in the United States so I gained a lot of experience. The course was different, it has a links style but the greens were small and the fairway was firm, it was really windy and hard to judge.
"The trees were low so we had to hit a lot of low shots that I really can't do, because in the United States and Asia we have to hit the ball high and try to stop it [one of her biggest strengths] and I wasn't able to do that in Buenos Aires so I really had to practice ball flight."
"After the Olympic Youth Games in Buenos Aires I played in Australia and New Zealand and that experience helped me to hit a low shot and I finished really good in the next two tournaments."
Yuka Saso's golf love story
She's also gained a lot of independence from international tournaments, she says her father Mazuoko (He goes by Masa) is her biggest influence, the one who's always by her side, first as golf coach, now as life coach.
"In YOG, at the Asian Games, it was really different from other team events because we have athletes' village, we have our own cafeteria and only the athletes can stay in athletes' village, and that's kind of a different situation for me because I've always travelled with my dad and he was always by my side so it's good that I experienced that when I was that age."
Saso has had to be self-reliant from a young age, and her love for golf is simple and honest:
"I didn't have anything to do but golf, and I just like hitting balls." - Yuka Saso
Now her commitment, hard work and determination have paid off and she's making her way towards the elite, with clear goals and a path forward:
"Of course I want to be a World No.1, playing in LPGA, and it would be my dream too to win an Olympic gold medal."
The Philippine No.1 will have to work to get to Tokyo, playing tournaments and producing to keep herself high enough in the rankings to qualify.
"We already played two tournaments here in Japan and hopefully there'll be two or three more," but she's enjoying all this family time while she can, focussing on life goals while golf goals are on hold.
"What I want to do in lockdown is just to enjoy time with family because if I qualify for the tour in the U.S. I won't be able to stay here again for long. I won't be able to see them again like this for years so I'm trying to enjoy as much as I can right now."
With the new schedule announced for Tokyo 2020 in 2021, one advantage that Saso has is that she's in Tokyo and has already played the course set to host the golf competition.
"I actually already played there, the golf course was really good. They changed everything, and it's all in good condition."
Positive and upbeat as ever, Yuka Saso the Philippine golf prodigy is just playing the game that's always been there for her, a simple love with a straight-forward approach that could take all the way to the top.