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Mina Harigae's incredible journey

Solheim Cup 2021: How this LPGA veteran went from broke to playing for Team USA

September 01, 2021
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A diamond’s brilliance forms under the perfect combination of time, pressure and heat. The gem rises to the surface through volcanic eruptions and other natural phenomena, then becomes mined from the land.

In much the same way, Mina Harigae, 31 and winless on the LPGA Tour since first earning her card in 2010, was mined from the rough as a captain’s pick by Pat Hurst for the 2021 U.S. Solheim Cup team. When Harigae competes this week at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, she will be the first 30-plus-year-old rookie to play for Team USA in the biennial match since 39-year-old Nancy Scranton, 35-year-old Michele Redman and 32-year-old Becky Iverson did so in 2000.

Harigae’s game crystallized to Solheim Cup status under the alchemy of the scorching Arizona heat and the relentless pressure of needing to play mini-tour events simply to earn enough money to cover her next month’s living expenses when the LPGA Tour’s 2020 season paused during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know if my mom would like me sharing this, but I’ll be honest,” Harigae said. “At one point, I had less than $2,000 in my bank account. That's why I had to play the Cactus Tour.”

Indeed, being a veteran making her Solheim Cup debut is the happy ending to a tumultuous few years. How she got there, and the perseverance she showed, is what makes this diamond shine so brightly.

Hariage’s struggles began midway through the 2019 LPGA season. Mired in steak of seven straight missed cuts from July to September, the longest run without weekend golf of her career, the former amateur standout (she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title in 2007) struggled to find answers as the chances of keeping her card were slipping away.

“We were essentially lost,” said Travis Kreiter, Harigae’s caddie and fiancé. “I didn’t know how to help her. She didn’t know what to do.”

After a missed cut at the Evian Championship, the fourth of the stretch, Harigae pondered her future. Should she look for other jobs? Should she try to become a teaching professional? Should she drive for Uber? How could she stay in golf?

Searching for guidance, she emailed her mom. As parents often do, her advice cut right to the heart of the issue.

“Her answer was great, I’ll never forget it,” Harigae explained. “Her answer was, ‘You are a professional golfer. You make money by playing golf. That’s what you’re going to do.’ ”

Harigae finally snapped the missed-cut streak with a T-48 at the Volunteers of America Classic in October, her final start of the 2019 season. She finished 109th on the money list, granting her conditional status for 2020. But Harigae wanted better, so she signed up for Q-Series at Pinehurst, the first time she had to try and earn a full card through qualifying in her career (she first joined the LPGA after winning the Futures Tour money title in 2009). It concluded shortly before her 30th birthday for her self-described “last shot” to better her status.

Harigae holding the trophy after winning the 2007 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links.

In preparation, Harigae overhauled almost her entire game in just over a month. "I knew I could be better," she said. "And if I worked harder than I ever had and if it still didn't work out after that, it wasn't meant to be. I knew I still had something left in the tank."

Harigae worked with her swing coach, Jeff Fisher, on a more neutral swing, grip and plane. ("My last, final swing change," she joked. "It was either going to be all in or bust.") Kreiter got her also to change her putting grip to the claw, allowing Harigae to get through the ball, as her double-jointed elbows prevented her hand from swinging outward enough with a conventional grip.

Additionally, Fisher pointed Harigae to mental performance coach Dawn Woodard for advice. Woodard encouraged Harigae to acknowledge how she felt on the course and stay present, rather than looking in the rearview mirror of the epoch of her amateur dominance.

"We all drive around in a car with a dashboard of various lights," Woodward said. "And just because a light comes on, we don't have to panic. It doesn't always mean something negative. Sometimes it just means let's get prepared. We just need to change our oil, or put air in our tires. If we ignore our warning system, our emotions and alarms, things will continue to get worse. Then you'll have a real problem."

The work showed itself immediately. On the first day of Q-Series, following her opening hole, Harigae told Kreiter she was nervous. It was the first time in her career she candidly mentioned her on-course nerves to her caddie.

She finished T-20, good enough to improve her status for 2020 despite daily stomach aches from the stress of trying to earn back her job. There was no time to celebrate with the overhaul of her game still ongoing. Instead of taking her usual five weeks off to reset from the year, Harigae took a three-day break before returning to implement her changes.

Harigae went to Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club, her home course out in Phoenix. For upwards of seven hours a day, she grinded on her game. Kreiter even built a net in their garage, letting Harigae practice when she got home. Harigae sent videos of her swing to her fiancé to see if her adjustments looked better.

Harigae also played and worked out with other LPGA members at Superstition Mountain, including future Solheim Cup teammate Jennifer Kupcho and rival Carlota Ciganda. She soaked up advice from her peers, particularly from the Ciganda, who she'd known since they played against each other in the 2004 Junior Ryder Cup. The Spaniard helped Harigae learn to hit low-flying 40- to 50-yard spiny wedge shots.

Harigae has had the support of her caddie/fiancé Travis Kreiter as she's overhauled her game and become a top player again.

NurPhoto

Harigae’s game was in the best shape of her career. The problem, though, was there was no place to play. When COVID hit that March, the LPGA shutdown for two-plus months. With it went the chance to earn back the money she’d invested in her game the previous winter that led to a dwindling back account.

Matt Brooks, the Director of Golf at Superstition Mountain who’s known Harigae for eight years, offered her and other LPGA members based at the course chances to be part of “Beat the Pro” days after the tour paused. It earned each participant a couple of hundred dollars.

“I knew she was probably struggling a little bit because she didn’t have the greatest year on the prior year on the LPGA Tour,” Brooks said. “I was not aware of how close she was to going broke at that point.”

Harigae returned the favor by helping Brooks build a putting green in his backyard as part of a COVID-19 passion project, never mentioning to him her financial worries.

Instead, her money concerns drove her to the decision to tee it up on the Cactus Tour in late May in nearby Mesa, Ariz. It was one of the few opportunities available to play professional golf due to the coronavirus shutdown. Moreover, it was her best chance to make money even with a four-figure tournament purse compared to the usual seven-figure purse on the LPGA.

“Those few months it was living paycheck to paycheck almost,” Harigae said.

Harigae went on a world-beating run of four victories in five starts from April to June. She set the tone with a Cactus Tour-record 24 under in her first start at Longbow Golf Club, where she won the AJGA's Heather Farr Classic in 2006. It was her first professional win since the 2009 Falls Auto Group Classic on the Futures Tour.

Harigae’s scorched-earth stretch included victories of 16 and 14 strokes. Even more impressive? They were only three-round events.

“To put up those numbers, you could see the confidence growing,” Kreiter said. “I think, personally, she didn’t want to just win. She wanted to win by 16, by 14 [strokes].”

Hariage could take encouragement, too, from the fact the fields she was competing against were stronger than in your typical mini-tour season. Four 2021 Solheim players won tournaments on the Cactus Tour in 2020 (Ciganda, Harigae, Sophia Popov and Anna Nordqvist). Two of them have since won majors: Popov at the 2020 AIG Women's Open and Nordqvist at the 2021 AIG Women's Open.

"She doesn't make many mistakes," Ciganda said. "Very consistent, she's a great putter. If her head is in a good frame of mind, I think she can be top 50 player in the world no problem."

Hurst said that Harigae’s explosive performances on the Cactus Tour are what got her on the captain’s Solheim Cup radar. In July 2020, Harigae maintained the momentum with the LPGA's restart at the Drive On Championship at Inverness Club, where she posted a T-6 finish. Sitting 254th in the Rolex World Rankings, it was her best result since a T-5 at the 2013 Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship.

The next week at the Marathon Classic, John McGannon walked up to Hariage with words that changed her year. The tour rep for PXG said that the equipment company would sign her for the rest of 2020, Harigae of her financial worries. “It was almost a huge confidence booster,” Harigae said. “If they believe in me this much, I can do anything.”

With the pressure removed, Harigae continued to see improvement in every facet of her game. From 2019 to 2021, Harigae's greens in regulation surged from 65.9 percent (136th) to 70.3 percent (66th). Her birdies per round rose from 3 (T-120) to 3.57 (T-45). Her putts per green in regulation leaped from 1.82 (100th) to 1.76 (ninth) this season.

“I know she has confidence because balls aren’t just trickling to the hole,” Kreiter said. “They’re finding their way into the hole instead of wishing their way in.”

Harigae has posted eight of her career 18 top-10s and four of her career top-fives in 2020 and 2021.

Oisin Keniry

Harigae's scoring average of 71 in 2021 is the best in her 11 years on tour. Further, Harigae set three career-best marks over the last 11 months. Her first was a T-4 at the LPGA Drive On Championship Reynolds Lake Oconee last October. In December, she capped her 2020 season with a solo fourth at the CME Group Tour Championship, then she recorded another best with a T-2 at the rain-shortened Marathon Classic this past July.

All told, she has posted eight of her career 18 top-10s and four of her career top-fives in 2020 and 2021.

Harigae played her way into an opportunity for another career-best at Carnoustie two weeks ago. She sat tied for the lead after the second round, presenting herself a chance to knock out two goals in one fell swoop: winning her first LPGA event and earning her way onto the Solheim Cup team (the automatic spots locked in after that event and Hurst would make her three captain’s picks). Instead, in her 243rd LPGA career start, she shot a Saturday 76, falling back to T-27 with one more round to play.

Kreiter took a dispirited Harigae to the range, reminding her of where they just were. In a final group, at a major, just more than a year after wondering if they had enough money to continue playing professional golf. “I was like, Wow, that is a huge deal,” Harigae said. “The next day on Sunday, totally different feeling.”

Harigae shared on her social media the gratitude she felt to emerge where she was and publicly shared her financial struggles for the first time.

"When I read it [the post], that has so summed up our little journey over the last 14, 15 months," Woodard said. "She really appreciates where she is, and even though she didn't play well [Saturday], she isn't beating herself up."

Harigae rebounded Sunday at Carnoustie with a closing 69 for a T-13 finish, lifting her to a career best 62nd in the Rolex World Ranking. She got a text from Hurst to meet her at the clubhouse right after signing her card, getting the captain's selection to go to Inverness as the second oldest player on the roster. "I just sat down there, and when [Hurst] told me," Harigae said, "I couldn't believe those words came from her mouth.”

“[I] noticed Mina back in the beginning of the year in Arizona playing some Cactus events and playing well, and she was kind of on my radar back then,” Hurst said. “I kind of went out on a limb and invited her to one of our team-bonding deals, and she was all-in for that. It was a lot of fun. She was totally part of the team and that was great to see.”

Hariage took a moment to acknowledge those who helped her come full circle. She texted Brooks after finding out, telling him he could stay in her Solheim hotel block and to get his room refunded. Kreiter started crying from the journey. Brooks texted the three Superstition Mountain Solheim players congratulations after the announcement of the rosters. Ciganda’s response? Asking if Harigae made the U.S. team. Woodard will also be alongside Harigae at the cup, all serving as reminders of the value of her newfound perspective.

"I think taking that mindset into Solheim Cup,” Harigae said, "Soaking it all in, I think soaking it all in is going to really help me."

Once Harigae tees it up in the Solheim, she'll have represented Team USA in four separate match play competitions: the Junior Ryder Cup (2004), Junior Solheim Cup (2006) and the Curtis Cup (2008). Harigae is unsure of how many more Solheims she can make or how much longer she'll continue to play professional golf, but it won't remove the gratitude she feels for her journey.

"You can dig yourself out of a dark hole," Harigae said, "If you're willing to put in the work and sacrifices, it shows that dreams do come true, really! I don't know how else to put it. I went from losing my card to being on a Solheim team in two years."

It took time, pressure and heat for the diamond that is Harigae to rise to the surface. Now, she gets her chance to shine.