Golf: Saso wins her second U.S. Open

Published 1:23 am Monday, June 3, 2024


 LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — The first Filipina to win the U.S. Women’s Open, and now the first from Japan. Sweetest of all for Yuka Saso was sharing the biggest prize in her sport with countries of both her parents.

Saso delivered a masterpiece on the back nine at tough Lancaster Country Club on Sunday amid collapses from so many contenders. She closed with a 2-under 68 — the four players in the last two groups combined to go 22-over par — for a three-shot victory.

And then she held back tears at the trophy presentation — the silver Semple Trophy has only the names of the 79 winners, not their countries — as she thought about how much her Filipina mother and Japanese father have provided so much care and support.

She won at The Olympic Club in 2021 playing under the flag of the Philippines. She won at Lancaster three years later under the flag of Japan. She couldn’t be prouder of both.

“Winning in 2021, I represented the Philippines. I feel like I was able to give back to my mom,” Saso said. “This year I was able to represent Japan, and I think I was able to give back to my dad. I’m very happy that I was able to do it.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling that I was able to give back to my parents in the same way.”

Only the flag changed. The 22-year-old Saso was just as rock-solid down the stretch as she was at Olympic Club, where two late birdies got her into a playoff she won over Nasa Hataoka.

This time, she rode four birdies over a five-hole stretch on the back nine with a collection of clutch moments with tee shots and putts, wedges and long irons, everything the hardest test in gold demands. And no one could catch her.

Saso got up-and-down for par from short of the 18th green to finish at 4-under 276, winning by three shots over Hinako Shibuno, who in 2019 became the first Japanese player to capture the Women’s British Open.

They were the only two players under par, the fewest for the Women’s Open in 10 years.

Saso, who has two titles on the Japan LPGA before coming to America, joined Se Ri Pak and In Gee Chun as the only players to make their first two LPGA victories major championships.

This also was her first win since Olympic Club, a victory so surprising she said she wasn’t ready for the spotlight. She handled everything Lancaster and the Women’s Open threw her way.

“I really wanted it, as well — not just to get a second win but also to prove something to myself,” Saso said. “I haven’t won in three years. I definitely had a little doubt if I can win again or if I won’t win again. But yeah, I think those experiences helped a lot, and I think I was able to prove a little bit something to myself.”

Andrea Lee, part of a three-way tie for the lead at the start of this wild day, was the last player who had a chance to catch Saso. But the Stanford alum, a former No. 1 amateur, badly missed her tee shot on the easy 16th and had to settle for par, then took bogey on the 17th. Lee took one last bogey on the 18th for a 75 to tie for third with Ally Ewing (66).

Saso won $2.4 million from the $12 million purse, the largest in women’s golf and in women’s sports at a standalone venue.

The victory also put Saso in position to return to the Olympics — she played for the Philippines in 2021 in the Tokyo Games and tied for ninth. She had to decide before turning 21 which country to represent, and she went with Japan.

She led a strong showing by Japan at Lancaster — five players among the top 10. Saso and Shibuno were the first Japanese players to finish 1-2 in any major.

As much as Saso shined, Sunday was filled with meltdowns. None was more shocking than Minjee Lee, a two-time major champion who captured the Women’s Open at Pine Needles two year ago.

Minjee Lee led by three shots when she got to the sixth hole. She missed a few birdie chances and made two bogeys before making the turn, but still had control. And then her tee shot on the par-3 12th — the same hole where Nelly Korda made 10 in the opening round — came up short and rolled back into the water. She took double bogey to fall into a tie with Saso.

Saso took the lead for good with a wedge to 3 feet for birdie on the 13th. Minjee Lee drove into waist-high grass on the 14th, had to take a penalty drop and made another double bogey. She closed with a 78.

“Just missed a couple putts for birdie early and then I kind of blew up from there” she said.

Wichanee Meechai of Thailand, the outsider among the leaders with no LPGA wins and a No. 158 world ranking, fell out early and took a triple bogey on the par-3 sixth. She shot 77.

Saso wasn’t immune from mistakes. She had a four-putt double bogey on the par-3 sixth that left her four shots behind Minjee Lee. That was the last of the mistakes that mattered.

Her big run began with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 12th, followed by a wedge for birdie on No. 13. She hit her approach to 6 feet on the 15th hole and then delivered the winner, a 3-wood to 20 feet on the reachable par-4 16th for a two-putt birdie.

Saso is the second woman to win a major under two flags. Sally Little won the 1980 LPGA Championship for South Africa, and then won the du Maurier Classic in 1988 as an American citizen.

Saso started the final round three shots behind, and it didn’t take long for collapses to unfold.

Andrea Lee three-putted the opening hole and then took double bogey on the fourth when she drove into the creek, hit a tree with her third shot and had to get up-and-down from a bunker for double bogey. Meechai three-putted her first two holes, and then went left of the flag on the par-3 sixth where the green slopes to the left and into the creek.

Saso also needed help in her other U.S. Women’s Open win — Lexi Thompson losing a five-shot lead over the last 10 holes. This time she seized control with a brilliant display of clutching putting and taking advantage of the scoring holes.

She said her emotions were from not expecting to win. It felt that way at Olympic, and it felt that way at Lancaster. This one felt twice as good.