SAN FRANCISCO — Yuka Saso of the Philippines bent her leg like a flamingo, using her body language to will in the birdie putt. It was the first playoff hole after Saso and Nasa Hataoka of Japan finished 72 holes of the 76th United States Women’s Open on Sunday tied at four-under 280, one stroke better than the third-round leader, the American Lexi Thompson.
But Saso had been responding to Hataoka’s putt, and when it fell short, she looked more disappointed than her opponent. After prevailing on the first hole of sudden death — the third playoff hole — when her own birdie putt dropped, Saso, 19, explained her reaction.
“I just don’t want to be selfish,” Saso said. “Everyone here is a great player. If it’s their time, it’s their time, if it’s my time, it’s my time. I just want to cheer everybody.”
As she stood staring at the trophy, Saso, a first-time major winner, looked as if she couldn’t quite believe that her time had arrived. Both players had parred on the two aggregate playoffs holes before Saso’s birdie putt tied her with Inbee Park as the youngest champion in the tournament’s history.
“I was just looking at all the great players in here,” Saso said. “I can’t believe my name is going to be here.”
It definitely didn’t appear to be Saso’s day when she posted consecutive double bogeys on Nos. 2 and 3 to drop five strokes behind Thompson at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course.
“I was actually a little upset,” Saso said. “But my caddie talked to me and said, ‘Just keep on going; there’s many more holes to go.’ That’s what I did.”
Thompson was trying to win her second major title, and her first since 2014, and snap a 10-major winless streak by American women.
Thompson had a one-stroke lead to start the round and held a five-stroke lead over Saso with nine to play, but faltered as Saso surged. She had a bogey-bogey finish to close with a 75. That was nine strokes higher than her third-round score.
Speaking while the playoff was getting underway, Thompson said, “I just wanted to come out today and play my game like I have the last few days.”
Thompson added, “Just got a few bad breaks, but that’s golf.”
Thompson, 26, knew the final round was going to be a nervy game of musical holes. For her to be the last one standing when the holes ran out, she was going to have to break with venerable Olympic Club tradition. Webb Simpson rallied from four strokes off the lead to win the men’s Open at the Olympic Club in 2012. Lee Janzen came from five back to win here in 1998. Arnold Palmer frittered away a seven-stroke advantage on the final nine in 1966, then lost a playoff to Billy Casper, who birdied four of his final holes. Scott Simpson, no relation to Webb, closed with a 68 to pass Tom Watson in 1987.
Hataoka, playing in the group directly ahead of Thompson, went on a Casper-esque charge with birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 15. Saso gained three strokes on Thompson on the 16th and 17th, both par 5s, drawing even with her at four under after she birdied both.
Playing in the final group alongside Thompson and Saso was Megha Ganne, 17, a high school junior from Holmdel, N.J.
The last time a U.S. Open was held at Olympic Club, a 17-year-old amateur also began the final round lurking four strokes off the lead, as did Ganne. The previous teenage interloper was Beau Hossler, who struggled to a 76 and finished tied for 29th.
Ganne hit her drive on the par-5 first hole into deep rough, leading to her first double bogey of the tournament. It was a harbinger of the grind that was ahead for Ganne, who closed with a 77 to finish tied for 14th, one stroke ahead of the next-best amateur, Maja Stark of Sweden (74).
“I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” Ganne said.
Thompson was battling history’s headwinds, too. A U.S.-born woman hadn’t won a major since Angela Stanford at the 2018 Evian Championship, and in the five men’s Opens held at the Olympic Club, none of the 54-hole leaders held on to win.
And then there was Thompson’s personal travails in the majors. Since winning the 2014 ANA Inspiration, she had endured several near misses, posting eight top-five finishes, including a playoff defeat at the 2017 ANA Inspiration after a television viewer’s observation led to a four-stroke penalty being tacked to her score on the final day.
Through it all, she preserved traces of the playful, unaffected 12-year-old that qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. They were there in her good-luck ladybug earrings, which she wore on Sunday, and her willingness to engage with younger players like Ganne.
Pro is a little word that can pack a bite far deeper than its breadth, and Thompson, who shed her amateur status in 2010, at age 15, was not immune to the loneliness, the self-doubts, the tedium of spending months away from home and the rootlessness of living out of a suitcase that come with playing for pay. Bright-eyed amateurs see only the blessings: the supportive fans, the immaculate courses, the fine clubhouse dining.
And so if she was to get back to her playful, unaffected teenage self, Thompson needed to redirect her focus so that she viewed golf as play and not as work. She enlisted the help of a psychologist based in Florida, John Denney, with whom she had worked early in her career, and their conversations, which they have several times a week, have helped her flip the switch. From feeling anxiety or anguish to gratitude. From feeling burdened by pressure to blessed by opportunities.
Thompson walked the walk. She forced a smile as she exited the 18th green after her approach, from 109 yards, found a bunker, and after she blasted out to 12 feet and left the par putt short.
Thompson’s eyes welled with tears and her voice quavered. She smiled wanly and said, “Yeah, I played not so good today with a few of the bogeys coming in on the back nine.
She added, “I’ll take today and I’ll learn from it and have a lot more weeks ahead, a lot more years.”