Golf is hard, as Mina Harigae would have known from rounds on her high school’s home course. The golf teams at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach play their home matches at Spyglass Hill, a tougher course than AP calculus.
But there are variations of hard. One of them is when a game that ostensibly came easy as an amateur collides with reality on the professional level.
Ten years into her LPGA career and without a win, Harigae, 30, found herself back in LPGA Q-Series earlier this month. She tied for 20th to regain her full exemption for 2020 and is ready for her career's second act to exceed the first.
“I haven’t quite reached my potential or my expectations,” she said recently.
Harigae’s potential was substantial. She grew up on the Monterey Peninsula, where her parents own a sushi restaurant, Takara. She was 12 when she won the first of four California Women’s Amateur Championships, all while under the tutelage of Jim Langley, the legendary professional at the Cypress Point Club. “He was the best,” she said.
Harigae won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at 17. She enrolled at Duke, but left after one semester to play professionally.
“I always knew I was going to be a professional golfer,” she said. “When I got to Duke, I wasn’t that happy there. So the prospect of professional golf was more appealing to me. I had the opportunity. I don’t regret it all. I came out swinging the next year and played great.”
Harigae played the Futures Tour (now called the Symetra Tour) in 2009, won three times and was its leading money winner, which earned her a promotion to the LPGA in 2010. It was then that she began to understand the game was more difficult than amateur golf would have led her to believe.
“The thing is, this is the best of the best and they come from everywhere,” she said. “My rookie year on the LPGA I thought I was a good golfer. I was ready to go. Then all of as sudden these golfers I’ve never heard of, all from different countries, they were dominating and it kind of threw me off a little bit. It was a little bit of a shocker.”
She had some decent seasons, but never finished better than 44th on the money list and has never finished higher than a tie for fifth in a tournament.
Her slide began in 2013. Her rankings on the money list went from 44th to 49th, 50th, 82nd, 120th, 116th, 83rd and, in 2019, 109th.
“It was kind of a gradual descent,” she said. “I had a few good years. The first not-so-great year, it wasn’t horrible. It was little things here and there. I wasn’t hitting it as well. I was not making as many putts. And my confidence went down a little.
“I switched coaches and I was never really able to get that swing down. My ball-striking continued to get worse. I was not hitting fairways and greens, which is not conducive to good scores. My confidence kept going down. I couldn’t figure out why. Golf wasn’t coming natural to me. I was forcing a lot of things.”
Harigae contemplated retirement, but the game was not going to release its hold on her so easily. She returned to the coach she had when she was 18, 19 and 20, Jeff Fisher. “That’s when I was hitting it really well,” she said. "I thought, maybe if I went back to someone who knew me and my swing when when I was hitting it well, maybe it would come back.”
In 2018, her scoring average was 71.59, the best of her career, though it fell to 72.27 in 2019.
“My ball striking was fine, but I was missing a lot of shorts putts in those lean years. Putting is very mental, as we all know. My fiance now, my boyfriend then, he’s one of the best putters I’ve ever seen and he’s helped me with my putting.”
Her fiance (and also her caddie) is Travis Kreiter, a former professional golfer who was sponsored by Arizona Cardinals’ all-pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. Kreiter was working in the clubhouse at Superstition Mountain Golf Club in Gold Canyon, Ariz., where he met Peterson, as well as Harigae.
“I wasn’t so nervous standing over putts any more,” Harigae said. “I started to make six-footers. Then I was making more longer putts again. No matter where I missed the green I had a good chance to make par. It just takes a lot of pressure off, when you see putts go in, especially the five-, six-, seven-footers.”
Harigae is convinced better days are on the horizon. “I definitely think so, even though 30 is on the older side on the LPGA. I changed my perspective a little bit. I’ve learned so much about myself and my game, about equipment and recovery, about nutritional things.
“I am really excited. I have a good plan in place.”