Success deferred is often sweeter than instant gratification. Being an overnight success means more when it takes many nights – and months and years. For Mina Harigae, the road from pre-teen sensation as an amateur to seasoned professional was so arduous her appearance on the leader board after 36 holes of the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedia is particularly gratifying.
In Round 1 on Thursday at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, Harigae fashioned a 7-under-par 64, her first sub-70 round ever in the U.S. Women’s Open, and in Round 2 on Friday she backed it up with her another one – a solid 2-under 69 to post 9-under-par 133 going into the weekend. And the road she has taken to get here makes Harigae feel all the more prepared for the challenge ahead.
“Today was fun, but stressful for sure,” she said Friday at Pine Needles. “Things got a little shaky there, but I was really happy with the way I hung in there and made some good birdies coming in.”
The journey to the Sandhills of North Carolina and the U.S. Women’s Open has been eventful and at times harrowing. In 2001, Harigae won the first of her four consecutive California Women’s Amateur championships at the age of 12. In 2003 and 2006, she made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior, then took the 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title, which helped her earn a spot on the 2008 USA Curtis Cup Team. She went to Duke University for a semester before turning professional in 2009.
That’s when the journey became a steeper climb. Harigae has yet to win in 260 starts on the LPGA Tour. She has played 46 major championships without a top-10 finish and her best effort in nine trips to the U.S. Women’s Open is T-28 in 2012. Her first U.S. Women’s Open was here at Pine Needles in 2007, when she finished T-66. In her mind, all that has been a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block.
“Every time that I'm doing well in a tournament, especially in a major championship, I just draw from each experience,” said Harigae, 32. “Today, even when things weren't going great I hit some not-great shots, but I was really able to keep myself calm and just try to be really level-headed out there, and I was doing a lot better with it.”
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was closing down tours that involved international travel, she sought competition on the Cactus Tour, winning four times on the circuit based primarily in Arizona. That was also a valuable learning ground.
“I think I'm just a completely different person and golfer in general,” she said about this version of Mina Harigae compared to the 20-something version. “I'm hitting a lot more greens now. I've always generally been a pretty good driver of the golf ball, but it's my irons that have really taken care of where I'm going with my game. I've been making a lot more putts. I think just as a person I'm much more mature. It took me a little bit, but I feel like I'm a lot more mature than I was in my 20s.”
The path to that maturity has been far from a singular journey.
“Just surrounding myself with people that are really good for me,” she said about swing coach Jeff Fisher, mental coach Dawn Woodard, who has competed in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur 19 times, agents Alex Guerrero and John Van Dyke, as well as her caddie and fiancé Travis Kreiter.
“He jockeys me around the golf course,” Harigae said about Kreiter. “Travis has a great killer athlete mentality. He kind of brought me back to how I was in my amateur golf days. More of that kind of mentality.”
While there is a weekend of golf ahead of her that demands Harigae’s undivided attention, there is an event next year that is also on her mind
“I think about it all the time, returning to Pebble Beach [in 2023] for the U.S. Women's Open,” she says about going back to the Monterey Peninsula of California, where she was born and raised and her parents still live. “That's my dream tournament for sure. I'm so proud to be from there.”
When asked if she had any food recommendations for the week of next year’s U.S. Women’s Open, Harigae broke into a wide smile. Her parents – father Yasunori and mother Mafumi – own Takara Sushi Restaurant in Pacific Grove.
“I think there's a pretty good sushi restaurant there,” she said. “My dad is the sushi chef and my mom is the kitchen chef, so hopefully my friends will go there when we play this next year.”
Going to Pebble Beach next year will be going home for Mina Harigae. And in a way, climbing to the top of the leader board at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open was also returning to familiar territory from those amateur days. Once again, she has placed herself in position to be a winner.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.