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Yuka Saso's US Open victory bolsters Philippines' Olympic hopes

Golfing community and sponsors awed by historic win of the Filipino-Japanese

Yuka Saso hoists the U.S. Open trophy after winning in a sudden death playoff following the final round of the Women's Open golf tournament at The Olympic Club in San Francisco on June 6. (Photo by Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)     © Reuters

MANILA -- Filipino-Japanese golfer Yuka Saso's historic victory at the 76th U.S. Women's Open Championship has energized the golf community in the Philippines and bolstered hopes for the country's first Olympics gold medal.

The 19-year-old dual citizen is the first Filipino to win the tournament and also the youngest, tied with South Korea's Park Inbee in 2008, to win the competition. Saso's victory over the weekend came after she prevailed against Japan's Nasa Hataoka in a sudden death playoff.

President Rodrigo Duterte's office congratulated Saso for "bringing honor to the Philippines." Duterte previously awarded Saso a citation after she won gold in the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.

"Today is a great day in Philippine sports," Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque said, calling Saso a "pride and glory of our country."

Pending final ranking, many in the Philippines expect Saso to qualify in the Tokyo Olympics next month, as hopes grow for the country's first Olympic gold medal.

"Yuka Saso is one of big bets this coming Olympics," Philippine Olympic Committee President Abraham Tolentino told Nikkei Asia on Monday. Nine Philippine athletes have officially qualified, but Tolentino expects at least 15 to make it.

"Her victory in the 76th U.S. Women's Open solidifies her position in ladies' golf and sends the strongest message that the young Filipina is ready for gold in the Tokyo Olympics."

Speaking with local journalists during an online press conference on Monday, Saso says she still needs to work hard to clinch gold in Tokyo.

"I still have to work on it. There's a lot of tournaments coming up, so I'll just get back to work and focus on my next tournament. And let's see what's going to happen in the Olympics," she said.

Like many other athletes, Saso's training had been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, making her victory even "more special" for the Philippine golfing community.

"Yuka has earned this feat with her amazing talent, determination, and grace under pressure. That she has brought so much joy and honor to our golf community and the country at a most challenging time truly makes her triumph all the more special," said the National Golf Association of the Philippines in a statement.

One of her key supporters, International Container Terminal Services or ICTSI, a global port operator, also commended "her for her hard work, perseverance and dedication to training, and most especially for remaining humble despite her recent successes."

"ICTSI will continue supporting Yuka in her golfing career, and we look forward to more victories," said the company controlled by Philippine billionaire Enrique Razon.

Born in the Philippines to a Japanese father and a Filipina mother, Saso moved to Japan when she was four. "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," she told Olympics.com.

She grew up watching golf videos, and studied the swing of her idol Rory McIlroy. The former world No.1 congratulated Saso on Instagram after her win, to which Saso said: "I would be happier if we will be able to meet in person. But I'm still thankful he messaged me."

When she was nine, Saso told his father she wanted to become a professional golfer. The older Saso took her daughter back to the Philippines, where she was home-school so that she could play golf every day. "I think we were having fun. We love the game of golf," she said on Monday.

Golf does not get as much attention as other sports such as basketball in the Philippines. But Saso's victory may inspire other young golfers to follow in her footsteps.

"We just need a lot of juniors, young people to play. I mean, I'm still young and I'm still dreaming. I hope there's just more kids, younger golfers like me to play golf. I think that's what we need," Saso said.

"Of course, they need to love the sport. I think you have to like what you're doing, not by just forcing someone to do it."

She thanked her family and fans for their support.

"I think it's a very special win for me and for my family. But this is just the start. And also for the country, I think it's really a good win. But it doesn't stop here so I hope we can get more," Saso said.

Ella Hermonio contributed to this report.

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