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Talent already there, but funding will be crucial in search for next Olympic golf spearhead, says mentor of Saso’s heir apparent

Many are looking at Bianca Pagdanganan to lead the country’s women golfers with Yuka Saso’s departure. —PHOTO FROM KEATS LONDON

The moment Yuka Saso announced she would opt for Japanese citizenship, the search for her replacement as spearhead of the country’s erstwhile vaunted women’s golf team began.

And Carito Villaroman, perhaps the best US collegiate player the Philippines has produced, said the search is not a question of who’s out there. It’s how much the country is willing to spend to field the best possible team in the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“We can still be well represented [in the 2024 Games] in Paris,” Villaroman told the Inquirer on Thursday. “We have the talents out here who can take the place of Yuka for the next Olympics.”

Villaroman, a two-time Optimist Junior World champion, said sports officials need not look too far to find Saso’s heir apparent. He certainly did not have to, since he carried the bag for one of them in the Tokyo Olympics: Saso’s close friend Bianca Pagdanganan.

“I’ve seen our players up close, seen the [current international] greats up close and believe me, the Filipino can,” said Villaroman, who studied the field in the Tokyo Games while caddying for Pagdanganan, his student. “In terms of ball striking, consistent hitting and how our players play the game overall, etc., we are at par with any of them.”

Villaroman added that aside from Pagdanganan, Dottie Ardina, Sunshine Baraquiel, Abby Arevalo and Daniella Uy are capable Olympians.

Medal favorite

Saso was a medal favorite in Tokyo, having won the US Women’s Open earlier to become the first Filipino to win a golfing major. A rocky first round doomed Saso, who finished strong to wind up ninth overall. The 20-year-old ace was supposed to lead the Filipino golf squad in Paris in 2024 until she made the announcement on Wednesday that she was opting for Japanese citizenship.

“Under Japanese law, prior to turning 22 years old, I have to choose between Japanese and Filipino citizenship,” Saso said in a statement released to media on Thursday. “I will be turning 22 years old on 20 June 2023 and, after much thought and consultation with my family, friends and advisors, I have begun the process of acquiring Japanese citizenship.”

“Thank you for respecting my choice. I am grateful to both my Filipino and Japanese supporters,” Saso’s statement also read.

‘Elite tours’

Villaroman, who won the second of those Junior World titles in 1986 by defeating Phil Mickelson by 11 shots at Torrey Pines, said sending a competitive duo to Paris won’t be cheap.

“You see, our players just need to play the elite tours, like the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) and the Symmetra tours in the US and even the Japan LPGA,” said Villaroman, who played college golf for Weber State University and was inducted into that school’s Hall of Fame in 2011. “That’s where the world ranking points are.”

Qualifying for those tours, and surviving a grueling qualifying, takes a lot of money.

In the United States, an LPGA Q-School participant would need no less than $10,000 to sign up, and that’s not counting other training expenses.

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