Nineteen-year-old Filipino-Japanese golfer Yuka Saso, who is back in the spotlight with her dramatic first career major victory at the U.S. Women's Open, was driven to success by her father's tough love.
Saso became an overnight sensation at the Asian Games in 2018, when the then 17-year-old represented the Philippines and got two gold medals. Her playoff victory Sunday proved the double gold was no fluke and is a testament to her connection with her Japanese father Masakazu, who helped set and enforce the grueling schedule that drove her to the top.
When she decided at the age of 8 she wanted to become a top-ranked player like now-retired Japanese golf star Ai Miyazato, her father relocated the family to the Philippines where the cost of living was a lot cheaper. Saso's mother is a Filipina.
"We are not rich. It was impossible for us to keep playing golf in Japan," the 63-year-old Masakazu said in an interview the father-daughter pair gave Kyodo News earlier this year.
They said the turning point in Saso's golf career came when she was 13 and competing in a tournament in the United States, and she saw a significant difference -- about 50 yards -- between the distances she was achieving with the golf ball and a 17-year-old player.
"It was frustrating. I told myself I would learn to swing as hard as her by the following year," Saso said, reflecting on a time that had made her cry out of anger.
Despite her plea, Masakazu was conflicted over whether he should force his daughter to keep up with a demanding training structure, so much so that he made her sign a pledge promising not to hold a grudge against him.
"I will commit myself to rigorous training but I will not hate my parents for it. I will not dislike them. I will never forget to show a daughter's smile," the pledge read.
From then on, Saso's mornings began with a 5:30 a.m. run, followed by 10 sets of 50- and 100-meter sprints wearing 2-kilogram weights and 30 minutes of repetitive side step jumping before taking actual golf swings.
Then, she would do 30-kg barbell squats, and sometimes even include dry swing training with a baseball bat while using ankle weights or shadow boxing to add variety to her workouts.
But Saso stayed calm, disciplined and in control regardless of the pressure and stress she was under.
She has learned that if she wants to move forward, it takes hard work and dedication on her part. She says she also wants to enjoy the process on her journey to the top.
"I want to remember to have fun while I play. I want to rank No. 1 in the world," she said.
On Monday, she jumped from 40th to ninth in the Rolex Rankings after beating Japanese golfer Nasa Hataoka in a playoff to give the Philippines its first major champion in golf and Japan its third major winner in women's golf.
After her historic conquest of the U.S. Women's Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco on Sunday, Saso credited her success to her father's love and parental support.
"(I was able to win because) my family supported me and was always there for me," Saso said.
Her father was moved to tears and could only manage a few words.
"(She did it) so soon...Good for her," he said.