It changed the life of a little-known teenager from the Philippines when she burst into the global golf spotlight after winning last year’s US Women’s Open – but left difficult decisions ahead.
Yuka Sasso will enjoy a new experience defending Major next week. But in Pine Needles he will play a different flag, under the red circle of Japan.
Sasso, who was born in the Philippines and has a Filipino mother and Japanese father, was hurt by the “very difficult” decision to change allegiance to his father’s land.
Japan does not allow adults to hold dual nationalities, leaving Sasso with an end-to-end preference before he turns 21 next month.
“I grew up in the Philippines and I played big events with the Philippine flag next to my name so it was a big decision,” he told AFP.
“It was tough … I am a professional golfer. I had to make good decisions for my job.”
The scales were tipped by Japanese passports for ease of travel in the post-epidemic world.
“I think everyone knows that Japan’s passport is stronger, it works less with things outside of golf,” Sasso said in a video call from the United States.
The Philippines will always hold a special place in Sasso’s heart – he won two gold medals for the country at the 2018 Asian Games and played for them again at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
“I am very honored to represent my motherland, those great events … all those memories,” Sasso said.
“I hope people don’t think I left the Philippines because I love the Philippines. I also love Japan.
“It’s still like me, it’s just the flag.”
Advice from McIlroy
Twelve months ago, Sasso arrived in San Francisco as a little-known golfer who won several events on the Japan LPGA Tour.
By the time he left the Olympic Club, just after the start of his seventh LPGA tour, Sasso had won the first Philippine golfer, male or female, major.
“Being able to win the US Open was awesome and getting an LPGA card was my dream,” he said.
“It was life-changing and since then I’ve learned a lot on and off the golf course.”
The win moved him from 40th in the world to the top 10 and gave him a five-year discount on the elite LPGA Tour.
It also brings career-enhancing commercial approvals. Insurance giant AXA was at the top of Sasso’s signature line.
“I was playing the Japan tour and reaching out to a big company like AXA, even before the US Open, gave me the confidence to take myself further.”
After all, the major victory gave Sasso a chance to meet his idol Rory McIlroy at the men’s US Open next week.
Sasso’s fluid swing is as remarkable as the four-time major champion of Northern Ireland. This is not a coincidence.
“It’s real that I tried to copy his swing,” he laughed, revealing that the pair kept in touch after meeting at the Tokyo Olympics again.
“I don’t really want to bother him, I know how busy he is. But whenever I have a question, he always answers and gives some advice, “said Sasso.
“One of my dreams is to be able to play with him one day.”
Pine Needles, in the windy sandhills of North Carolina, will present a different challenge to Sasso, who won his first major along the Pacific coast courtesy of the knee-knocking birdie in the third play-off hole.
Sasso, who described the pine needles as a “very difficult course” after training there this month, was nine years old when he decided to play golf – and vowed to win the US Open.
“My dad loved to watch golf. We were watching the US Open in 2010 when Paula Kramer won, ”he recalled.
“And I told my dad: ‘I want to win that trophy’ – at the age of eight and a half when I just started playing golf!” She smiled.
“My dad was like: ‘Are you sure? I think you should just focus on other things because when you pursue something like being a professional athlete, you have to accept a lot of sacrifices.’
“But I didn’t understand it, because I was too young. So I just told him, ‘I want to be a professional golfer’.
Eleven years later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Masakazu Sasso saw his daughter’s prediction come true.
“It was heartbreaking because my dad was there, even though my mom wasn’t there,” Sasso said.
“I feel very grateful for their help because I wouldn’t be here without my family.”
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