Yuka Saso continues eye-opening trend of players making their first LPGA title a major

Seven of the last 11 women's major winners have been first-time LPGA winners.

Yuka Saso continues eye-opening trend of players making their first LPGA title a major

JOHNS CREEK, Georgia – Yuka Saso’s picture hung from a skyscraper in Manila the day after she became the first Filipino player to win a major championship title. Saso graced the front page of every major newspaper in her home country and Postmaster General Norman Fulgencio announced her face would be featured on a stamp.

It’s no wonder Saso slept with the trophy that first night.

“Actually, my trophy stayed on the bed and I stayed on the couch,” she joked.

Saso is the latest in a long line of players who made their first LPGA title a major. Seven of the last 11 major winners, in fact, have been first-time winners on tour. Four of those seven players were non-members.

When Saso clinched the U.S. Women’s Open title at Olympic Club on the third playoff hole, she also seized a five-year exemption on the LPGA. That’s a new bonus – call it the Popov Rule – after Sophia Popov won the AIG Women’s British Open title in 2020 and an uproar followed that she wasn’t in the next week’s event let alone the next major and that, as a non-member, she only received a two-year exemption on tour.

The LPGA announced changes that addressed all of those issues earlier this year.

“She gets everything she deserves,” said Popov. “She’s a great player. She’s a great human being. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t have a five-year exemption out on Tour.”

Saso, who turned 20 on Sunday 20, was over-the-moon about meeting idol Rory McIlroy (and Phil!) for the first time as the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. McIlroy invited her inside the ropes, and the woman who spent hours watching YouTube videos of McIlrory’s swing, got to take her own video. She was more nervous meeting McIlroy that she was over the birdie putt she needed to win the U.S. Women’s Open.

“I didn’t know how to say hi,” she said.

Asked how often she’d watched highlights of her victory at Olympic, Saso said she doesn’t like watching herself.

“I’d rather watch Rory’s,” she said with a smile.

Jennifer Kupcho is the highest-ranked LPGA player, at No. 24, who hasn’t yet won on tour. She tied for second at the Evian in her rookie season and took a share of seventh at the Women’s PGA in 2021.

The last seven LPGA major winners happen to be first-time major winners, too. They hail from five different countries and none are Americans.

When Stacy Lewis first came on tour in 2009, she felt like roughly 30 players had a chance any given week. That number has more than doubled, she said.

“It shows that these girls are more prepared coming out,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing is they’re more prepared for the big stages and to handle the pressure of it, which is a great thing. You don’t necessarily want to have to have the huge learning curve and all of that.”

“Whether we continue to see it, I don’t know. It’s just so hard to win now.”

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Stacy Lewis, Duke basketball coach Kara Lawson deliver empowering message at KPMG Women's Leadership Summit

The two stars of their respective sports gathered to talk about breaking barriers and empowering change in women's sports.

Stacy Lewis, Duke basketball coach Kara Lawson deliver empowering message at KPMG Women's Leadership Summit

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. ­– Stacy Lewis’ daughter Chesnee joined her on the flash area platform after her final interview of the day. She carried a golf ball with her – not mom’s – and took to kicking it like a soccer ball. Chesnee isn’t old enough to come out and watch mom play during tournaments, but she does like to join her at practice.

“She’ll pick up a club and she’ll miss the ball completely,” said Lewis, “but she’ll sit there and hold her finish. So you know she’s paying attention. She’s watching.”

Stacy Lewis has always asked why. Never one to settle for personal success alone, Lewis has always looked out for the best interests of the overall tour. Why do the women, for example, play for less money on lesser-known courses? Those questions kicked into an even higher gear after she gave birth to a girl.

“You know, it’s just everything I do now is for Chesnee,” said Lewis, “and I hope when she’s older, she sees what I did as far as just having her while I was still playing (to) keep pushing the bar.”

Lewis, a former World No. 1 and KPMG ambassador, has been an integral part of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship from the start. On Wednesday, she joined Duke head coach Kara Lawson at the annual KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit to talk about breaking barriers and empowering change.

Lawson, a Former WNBA and Olympic Champion, became the first female nationwide TV analyst for an NBA game and the first female assistant coach in Boston Celtics history.

“I think a lot of times those types of milestones say more about the decision-makers than they do the person,” said Lawson, who noted that not one day did she wake up in Boston thinking she couldn’t accomplish a task or that players wouldn’t listen to her because she’s female.

“I can’t be convinced about the opposite.”

Lawson wants to see women in key positions of leadership across all sports, just like Lewis wants to see all women’s sports get more network coverage.

“I think our biggest barrier is TV,” said Lewis, “and it has to do with the viewership and the number of people watching … that ultimately is what’s going to drive the money in.”

Being on the same stage as Lawson – though virtually this year ­– was energizing for Lewis, who wanted to jump on the floor and play for the Blue Devil coach after listening to her speak. In many areas, the accomplished pair could relate.

Boston Celtics guard Carsen Edwards talks with former assistant coach Kara Lawson before the start of a game against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden. (Photo: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

“It’s nice to hear the same struggles,” said Lewis, “but also the same kind of triumphs, too.”

Lawson said it’s important not to wait for someone else to recognize something that she already believes about herself. She knows what she has, what she brings, and in her mind, she’s already there.

“I don’t wait for people in my head,” she said. “That confidence has carried me a long way.”

Since the Leadership Summit began seven years ago, 20 percent of the women who participated have been promoted to the C-suite and 50 percent have been promoted.

“That’s one huge impact statement there,” said Paul Knopp, KPMG U.S. Chair and CEO. “We realize we play a small part in that, but these women continue to mentor and go to leadership development opportunities through this program. They network with the women every year that are at the summit.”

In 2019, two-thirds of LPGA events had some type of women’s leadership event convening onsite.

Condoleezza Rice, the 66th U.S. Secretary of State, followed Lawson and Lewis in Wednesday’s all-star lineup.

It’s important for Lewis to show Chesnee that women don’t have to choose between their career and raising a family. The two-time major winner was at the Masters doing an event when she first told former KPMG Chair and CEO Lynne Doughtie that she was pregnant. Lewis admits she was scared to tell her sponsors, wondering if they drop her.

Doughtie wrapped her up in a bear hug, and the next week Lewis found out that KPMG would pay out the entire year she was pregnant event if she didn’t compete in the minimum number of events that her contract stipulated.

“It was the biggest relief,” said Lewis, “just to know that they had my back.”

All but one of her sponsors did the same thing and Lewis was outspoken about the need for it to become standard practice for all female athletes.

“It’s just encouraging to see it across all sports, in business,” said Lewis, “things are changing.”

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