Yuka Saso and Lydia Ko looking to contend for victory
Yuka Saso first came onto the LPGA scene at the Champions Club in Houston for the 2020 US Women’s Open. As a relative unknown outside of Asia, she came across as a very shy and deferential individual, minding her manners as she spoke in public, while maintaining a quiet outward persona. Fast forward 16-months and there has been a mild transformation – she comes across as a much more relaxed and open player, comfortable with who she is and her place on the LPGA. Winning the US Women’s Open can have that effect, but it probably has more to do with her true personality being gradually revealed to the larger public.
At Tuesday’s media day, Saso was very relaxed, rested, and comfortable speaking about the state of her game and developments off the course. She comes into this week well rested with her last event being the Honda LPGA Thailand event where she finished with a share of 12th place. Her time off allowed her the time to refresh herself spending a solid week off from golf, primarily sleeping and hanging out at home. Afterward, she went to Carlsbad to meet up with Callaway for some club testing and refinement, hitting shots and testing her distances and trajectory in advance of the season’s first Major championship.
She comes into the week as the 11th – ranked player in the world, the 2021 US Women’s Open champion, with betting agent William Hill, placing her odds to win at 33 to 1. As for her game, she ranks 15th on tour in Total Strokes Gained, averaging + 1.64 strokes per round, placing her solidly above the field average. This will be important in winning on the Dinah Shore course with its sticky rough and its emphasis on ball placement when attacking the greens. Her putting has also been solid – she ranks 35th on tour in Strokes Gained putting averaging +0.66 strokes per round above the field average.
In preparing for this week, she’s been working on her consistency in hitting good shots, noting that her work on the range needs to carry over onto the course.
“Every week we’re trying to get better as a golfer. You know, (at) the range you don’t have much pressure, so I think it goes well there. I think it doesn’t really matter what you do on the range. What matters most is what I do on the course. I hit some good shots, but the consistency is not there yet, so hopefully I can work on that and be better.”
As for her off-course life, Saso recently signed a deal with new sponsor KPMG during the break, joining players like Stacy Lewis, Leona Maguire, and Mariah Stackhouse. Her current sponsors include Callaway Golf, ICTSI – a Philippines based shipping and logistics company, and French insurance company AXA.
“I’m very honoured to be joining team KPMG. It was one of my dreams to join team KPMG. I looked up to Stacy (Lewis) a lot.” As for her newfound celebrity status, she remains very much grounded and focused on her game. “I don’t think being famous affects my game. I think it gives me more confidence to play better and do more good stuff, be a better person.”
Past champion Lydia Ko (2016) enters this week having set a course record in the last competitive round she played here, posting a score of 62 (-10) under. After a few years of playing mediocre golf by her lofty standards, Lydia Ko is back into the Top-10 of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, currently sitting in the 3rd spot.
Over the past couple of years, she’s been working with her coach Sean Foley to strengthen her game, particularly in gaining some distance off the tee. She spoke of how her game evolved and developed since she last won here in 2016, noting how her changes should be advantageous this week.
“My game, like last year, was very different to when I won here. I’m hitting it a lot longer off the tee the last couple of years than when I played and won in 2016, and the course has changed too. They brought the fairways in (and) grown the rough a lot more . . . it’s so important to be on the fairways here because the greens are pretty firm and the rough quite ‘juicy’. To be on the fairways is going to be a huge advantage.”
It isn’t just the evolution of her game boosting Lydia’s confidence. Her form since the start of the season has been superb to the point of surprising her. “At the start of the year I wasn’t really sure where my game was at because I didn’t really have a lot of time to prepare. The first two weeks having top 10 at (Lake) Nona and then winning at Gainbridge was kind of a surprise and a bit of a bonus.”
Her overall play has been impressive. She ranks 10th in Total Strokes Gained at +2.03 strokes per round over the field while she is ranked 9th on tour with a +1.07 SG per round with her Approach shots. As for her putting, she is averaging +1.23 strokes gained per round over the field. With this kind of play, Lydia Ko has to be one of the favourites to win this week. As of today (March 30th), odds maker William Hill had her listed as a 12-1 favourite, with only Jin Young Ko at better odds with 9-2.
Lydia herself is taking a balanced approach to this week after playing in the JTBC Classic last week, trying to maintain a level-headedness while remaining confident, but not overly so. “I think there were some good and some bad (aspects) from last week, but (I’m) trying to take the positives. I didn’t hole many birdie putts last week, so hopefully a few more will drop here.”
Being a seasoned veteran of the LPGA, she has played Mission Hills on several occasions and has an excellent grasp of the course and how it plays.
“The course is in such good shape that I feel like as long as I play solid golf, you’re going to get a pretty true testament of how your playing. So, yeah, hopefully confident, but when you tee it up on Thursday it always feels a little different.”
Yuka Saso tees off on Thursday at 8:11 a.m. local time with fellow KPMG player Stacy Lewis. Lydia Ko is paired with Brooke Henderson, teeing of in the afternoon round at 1:27 p.m. Both Saso and Lydia Ko start on the 10th tee on Thursday, before switching over to the 1st tee box for Friday.