The Homecoming: A Resurgent Mina Harigae Set for Pebble Beach Return

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jun 24, 2023

The Homecoming: A Resurgent Mina Harigae Set for Pebble Beach Return

The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

The first time Mina Harigae set foot on the hallowed grounds of Pebble Beach Golf Links, she was 11 years old and barely taller than her driver. Paired with childhood friend and rival Sydney Burlison for a twilight round arranged through a local junior golf association, the two girls born just 12 days apart absorbed the breathtaking beauty without much concern for their scorecard.

Burlison recalled the two shooting in the mid- to upper-40s on the front nine, but the day’s highlight came as dusk enveloped the stunning Pacific coastline. Burlison’s tee shot on the legendary par-3 17th stopped a foot from the flagstick. Harigae followed with a birdie on the iconic par-5 closing hole.

For Harigae, a Monterey, Calif., native who grew up 15 minutes from Pebble Beach – her parents own a sushi restaurant in Pacific Grove – it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with what Robert Louis Stevenson called the “most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation.”

Now 33 and enjoying a career resurgence, former junior wunderkind Harigae will fulfill a childhood dream by competing in the first women’s major at Pebble Beach when the 78th U.S. Women’s Open is contested there July 6-9. Six years ago, when the USGA announced it was going to the six-time U.S. Open venue, Harigae was ecstatic, though at that point she was fighting to keep her LPGA Tour playing privileges and a place in the field was far from guaranteed.

But Harigae locked up a spot thanks to a runner-up finish to Minjee Lee last June in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, a performance that also earned her a cool $1 million payday, the largest ever for second place in a women’s event.

“I think it means the world to her,” said Burlison, who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open as a 13-year-old in 2003 and is now the director of U.S. Open Partnerships at Pebble Beach Resorts.

Harigae estimates she’s played the course 50 times since that first round, which includes four starts as a junior in the First Tee Open as well as competing in the annual TaylorMade Invitational.

“I’m so excited to play in front of the home crowd. It’s the biggest tournament in women’s golf. It’s an absolute dream come true.”

Harigae’s first memorable visit to an event at Pebble was in February 2001, when she and Burlison took in a practice round prior to the PGA Tour’s annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tiger Woods. A volunteer tipped the two to arrive in the early morning, and Woods graciously posed for photos, signed autographs and let the two pre-teens walk inside the rope line. A nervous Harigae mustered enough courage to tell Tiger she had competed against his niece, Cheyenne Woods, in the previous year’s Junior World Championship in San Diego.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” Woods told her.

Later that year, Harigae generated her own headlines when, a few days before turning 12, she captured the first of four consecutive California Women’s Amateur titles. Her opponent for two of those victories, including the first, was Burlison.

“When I beat her the first time, we were both crying,” recalled Harigae. “She was crying, and then I felt bad because she was crying.”

The two became inseparable in high school, playing video games, doing homework and practicing together when they attended the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach. Their golf attracted widespread attention, with Sports Illustrated publishing an article on the two in 2002 when they were 12.

A self-described “string bean,” Harigae overcame a lack of power with an exquisite short game and a fierce competitive instinct. She was a four-time American Junior Golf Association All-American, represented her country in the Junior Solheim Cup and Junior Ryder Cup and was a member of the victorious 2008 USA Curtis Cup Team at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.

In 17 USGA amateur championship starts, Harigae posted a 34-15 match-play record and won the 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (WAPL) title at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Ky., where she defeated future major champion Shanshan Feng in the Round of 16.

Twice she advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior. In 2003 at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., she outlasted future U.S. Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang in the Round of 16 in 19 holes, despite being consistently outdriven by 50-plus yards. In the quarterfinals, she beat another future major champion, Morgan Pressel, in 19 holes, a precursor to their legendary Round-of-32 clash two years later at the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek Course in Roswell, Ga., when eventual champion Pressel needed 19 holes to oust Harigae. It was the match of the championship, one that both players recall vividly nearly two decades later.

Childhood rivals and close friends Mina Harigae (left) and Sydney Burlison spent many hours at the Pacific Grove sushi restaurant owned by Harigae's parents. (USGA/Kip Evans)

Childhood rivals and close friends Mina Harigae (left) and Sydney Burlison spent many hours at the Pacific Grove sushi restaurant owned by Harigae's parents. (USGA/Kip Evans)

Recently, Harigae and her now husband, Travis Kreiter, were at her parents’ Monterey home when Kreiter discovered a box filled with USGA medals. Besides her gold medal from the WAPL and bronze medals from the two Girls’ Junior semifinal finishes, Harigae was the stroke-play medalist in the 2006 U.S. Girls’ Junior and ’06 WAPL and qualified for two U.S. Women’s Opens as an amateur (2007, 2008).

“Man, I was good,” said Harigae, reminiscing about her halcyon days as a junior golfer. “[Travis] put them in little shadow boxes. Now you can see all my medals. It’s really cool to see how much I accomplished when I was younger.

“Looking back now, I treasure [those accomplishments] a lot more. Back then, I just wanted to win. When I lost, I would be so upset over it. I couldn’t really see that I played good golf.”

Harigae’s parents likely wouldn’t have enough space at their restaurant, Takara Sushi, for all of her trophies and medals. By the time she graduated from the Stevenson School in 2008, Harigae was one of the country’s most decorated amateurs.

But just a few months into her freshman year at Duke University, Harigae announced she was leaving amateur golf for the professional game. One semester convinced her that college wasn’t for her. She loved being around her teammates, 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Amanda Blumenherst among them, but little else. A couple of months after turning 19, she joined the Duramed Futures Tour, where she topped the 2009 money list with three victories.

Everything pointed to future stardom on the LPGA Tour.

At every stage of her golf career, Harigae had excelled. But when she earned her LPGA Tour card for the 2010 season, that success didn’t carry over. Whether it was a lack of length or confidence, or some other intangible, Harigae couldn’t duplicate the results. There were good seasons – she finished inside the top 50 on the money list in four consecutive years from 2011-14 – but no victories to her name.

“I was a small fish in a big pond,” said Harigae of her first decade on the LPGA Tour. “There were so many girls I had never heard of from other countries, and everyone can play. It was a shock to the system.”

She even parted ways with her swing coach, Jeff Fisher, whom she met at Duke. Fisher saw that changes were necessary when she first turned professional, but Harigae was reluctant to upset the equilibrium. Why fix something that she assumed wasn’t broken?

Instead, she got further away from her comfort zone in the bid for distance and lost much of her identity as a golfer.

By 2016, a season that produced a paltry $46,508, her world ranking dipped precipitously to No. 349. As the summer of 2019 wound down with a disappointing missed cut at the Evian Championship in France, the once-promising phenom contemplated leaving professional golf as the game was hemorrhaging her finances.

Mina Harigae's name is forever etched in USGA championship lore as the champion of the 2007 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Kentucky. (USGA/Jason E. Miczek)

Mina Harigae's name is forever etched in USGA championship lore as the champion of the 2007 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Kentucky. (USGA/Jason E. Miczek)

Even Kreiter, whom she met in 2017 at Superstition Mountain in Gold Canyon, Ariz., where he was working in the golf shop while trying to kickstart his own pro career, was at a loss for how to help.

Their first date had been on the course – Harigae lost money but gained a life partner. In 2018, Kreiter gave up on his own competitive dreams to become Harigae’s full-time caddie. If anyone understood Harigae’s disposition, it was him, and although he offered encouragement, the best advice came from someone closer to home.

When Harigae returned from Evian, she fired off a long email to her mom, Mafumi, detailing the frustrations. Mafumi’s response was blunt and to the point: You are a professional golfer, and professional golfers make money by playing.

Harigae finished out the season and improved her LPGA Tour status for 2020 via Q-School that fall. By then, she realized it was time to make those drastic changes Fisher had suggested a decade earlier.

“It’s hard to accept changes when you have enjoyed success,” said Fisher, who resumed working with Harigae in 2017. “She beat a lot of juniors this way, beat a lot of college kids this way, but [LPGA] Tour success is going to be a lot harder.

“Finally, I asked her if she was OK with this deal. I told her if we don’t fix this grip… you’re just going to keep putting band-aids on [your game].”

Everyone in her camp became fully invested in the transition, from Fisher and Kreiter to her South Carolina-based mental performance coach, Dawn Woodard, an elite mid-amateur who works with several players.

Harigae went through the golf equivalent of learning to walk again. To weaken her strong grip, Fisher constantly placed Harigae’s hands in the correct position on the club until she felt comfortable. Her swing plane changed as a result, as did her ball flight. Kreiter also altered Harigae’s putting grip to the claw, which has proven to be a game-changer.

A worldwide pandemic was another one.

The COVID-19 shutdown gave Harigae more time to adjust to the changes, and with the LPGA Tour on pause, the only avenue for competitive golf in the spring and early summer of 2020 was the Cactus Tour, an Arizona-based circuit that typically caters to up-and-comers – except now some LPGA Tour players were entering events to stay sharp.

Sophia Popov won a Cactus event, then proceeded to stun the golf world and win that year’s AIG Women’s Open. Anna Nordqvist also won and would claim the 2021 AIG Women’s Open. Jennifer Kupcho would go on to win the 2022 Chevron Championship.

For Harigae, it became the perfect avenue to test all her changes. Nobody, including Fisher, knew what to expect. Over the next two months, she won four of five events, shooting 24 under to win her first at Longbow Club, where she had captured the AJGA Heather Farr Classic 14 years earlier.

“She always had the capability to go low, something that I never had,” said Burlison, who still talks to Harigae weekly. “Every once in a while, she would catch fire and shoot 61 or 62. Just reminding herself that she could do that was critical.”

Added Fisher: “Through that whole period, I kept reminding her why people called her ‘the great Mina Harigae.’ Remember, that’s who you are. Get back to playing ‘Mina Golf,’ and Mina Golf is good most of the time.” 

Mina Harigae's father, Yasunori, will get a rare chance to see his daughter compete in a golf event at Pebble Beach, just a short drive from the family's sushi restaurant in Pacific Grove. Her mom, Mafumi, also plans to attend. (USGA/Kip Evans)

Mina Harigae's father, Yasunori, will get a rare chance to see his daughter compete in a golf event at Pebble Beach, just a short drive from the family's sushi restaurant in Pacific Grove. Her mom, Mafumi, also plans to attend. (USGA/Kip Evans)

When the LPGA Tour resumed, so did Harigae’s renaissance. In 2021, she produced her best season to date, amassing $791,757 to finish No. 22 on the money list and 48th in the Rolex Rankings. Another pinnacle came when USA Solheim Cup captain Pat Hurst made her one of three captain’s picks for the three-day competition at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.

Fisher recalled a moment from Day 1 when Harigae faced a challenging approach to the ninth hole. Two years earlier, he was hoping Harigae could just cash a check on the Cactus Tour; now she was in the heat of a Solheim Cup, attacking a difficult back-right hole location. Standing next to two-time major champion Bubba Watson, Fisher predicted that she was going to stick it close.

“And she did,” said Fisher. “She had zero prayer of hitting that shot a couple of years ago.”

The 2022 LPGA Tour season got off to an inauspicious start for Harigae, with four missed cuts in her first 10 starts. Was 2021 a one-off? The week leading into the U.S. Women’s Open, she posted an 0-2-1 record in the Bank of Hope Match Play in Las Vegas, and to make things worse, she endured major flight delays en route to North Carolina.

It reached the point where she worried about getting to Pine Needles in time for the year’s biggest event. The calming influence in her life, Kreiter stemmed those anxieties and assured her that the Women’s Open was just another event on the calendar. Don’t make this bigger than it is.

Harigae was the last player to register on Tuesday afternoon. She decided to play only the back nine on Wednesday, leaving Kreiter to map out Pine Needles’ front nine.

Trust is a valuable intangible, and Harigae relied on Kreiter’s notes to shoot an opening 7-under-par 64 that included a 5-under 30 on the front nine, the one she hadn’t officially played since Round 2 of the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a 17-year-old.

As the week progressed and the tension intensified, Harigae focused herself by harkening back to the 2021 Solheim Cup, remembering the way she handled the pressure and crowds.

Harigae was playing “Mina Golf.” The firm and fast conditions at Pine Needles perfectly suited her. She stuck to the game plan and put herself where she’d never gone before: the final pairing in a major on the weekend.

Most years, a score of 9-under 275 would be good enough to hoist the trophy. But in 2022, Minjee Lee was just that much better. Four strokes, in fact, as the Australian’s record-setting score of 271 attested.

Nevertheless, there was a nice consolation prize of $1 million, a check that amounted to 27 percent of Harigae’s career earnings to date and led to her best season on tour.

“Afterwards, I texted her that she was a millionaire,” said Burlison. “She came back, ‘I can’t believe it.’ It was a huge weight [off her shoulders]. She could just focus on playing good golf versus worrying about a bunch of bills.”

The financial compensation notwithstanding, there was another meaningful perk from the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open. With the top 10 scorers including ties exempt into the 2023 championship, Harigae could start making plans for her “homecoming” at Pebble Beach. No player in this year’s field will be more intimately familiar with the course. There’s little doubt Harigae will be the local favorite and the sentimental choice to hoist the Harton S. Semple Trophy.

How big is this moment? Her parents are going to close Takara Sushi for four days so they can watch Mina compete against the world’s best. They have only seen Mina play in a handful of professional events. Harigae already is preparing for an onslaught of ticket requests.

To normalize things, she and Kreiter have booked a hotel for the week as her parents’ home will be full of relatives.

With all the outside noise, focusing on golf might be a burden, and Harigae said that would have been an issue a few years ago. Not so now.

The last three seasons have brought new maturity, while Kreiter has provided balance and the on-course success has made Harigae financially secure.

All Harigae needs to do now is play Pebble Beach with the same joy as the 11-year-old who first stepped on the tee more than 20 years ago.

“It’s going to be a madhouse that week,” she said. “But I’m ready for it.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.