Bright future

Mina Harigae hits her tee shot on the fourth hole during the first round of the 2008 U.S. Women's Open at Interlachen Country Club.

One can make a solid argument that so far in the month of June, Mina Harigae is the hottest player in women’s golf. The 19-year-old won back-to-back titles on the Duramed Futures Tour followed by an exhausting triumph at a 36-hole U.S. Women’s Open sectional qualifier June 15 in Wilmette, Ill.

“I’m sorry for missing your phone call,” Harigae said at 10:17 a.m. Thursday morning. “I just woke up.”

She woke up alright.

Last summer Harigae, a former top-ranked junior and 2007 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion, failed to make match play in her WAPL defense and bowed out of the U.S. Women’s Amateur in the first round.

“I think missing cuts and not playing well has helped humble me,” said Harigae last August while eating an orange popsicle near the clubhouse of Eugene (Ore.) Country Club. At that point, Harigae hadn’t had a lesson in four months and was in the market for a new swing coach.

Jeff Fisher, an instructor in Phoenix and brother of an aunt’s friend, read about Harigae’s search for a new swing technician in Golfweek and put his name in the hat. Harigae took Fisher up on his offer and the two began working together shortly before she started her freshman year at Duke University.

Harigae’s move from Monterey, Calif., to Durham, N.C. wasn’t seamless. She chose Duke for its strong golf program, not realizing the full scope of its academic demands. (Oh, and her boyfriend at the time played on the men’s team.)

Alas, Harigae became the first player in coach Dan Brooks’ 25 years at Duke to leave Durham midseason. It was a tremendous blow to the program.

“I kind of miscalculated the effort I needed for golf and academics, to try to balance it,” she said.

“I wanted to play golf. That’s all I cared about.”

Harigae moved back to Monterey and continued working with Fisher in Phoenix. In February, she moved in with him and another junior player to get serious about her game. She turned professional and promptly won a Cactus Tour event.

Harigae got into Duramed Futures Tour events based on her college golf ranking and finished runner-up her second time out. Two wins later, she’s sitting atop the money list with $52,825. Harigae still is sponsorless, and she doesn’t have an agent, but she sounds happy.

“I’m able to relax a little bit more,” she said. “If I relax, I’m able to play better golf.”

Should Harigae win another event on the DFT, she’ll be eligible for a “battlefield promotion” to the LPGA. Three wins won’t give her membership, but it will help her get into several LPGA events. Because Harigae’s victories came so late in the season, even if she won this week in Indiana her LPGA “promotion” wouldn’t force her to choose between the two tours.

After the U.S. Women’s Open, Harigae wouldn’t be eligible for the next three events (Evian, British Open, Solheim Cup). She could get into the Safeway Classic, a week the Futures Tour is off. After that she’ll be required to play in the season-ending ILOVENY Championship, leaving her three possible LPGA events to end the year (P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship, CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge and Navistar).

The battlefield promotion is something new on the Futures Tour this year. Should Harigae go on to finish inside the top 5 on the DFT money list this season, she will have her LPGA card for 2010 and Category 9 status.

The only way Harigae can improve on Category 9 status would be to win an LPGA event this year. Even then it won’t make much difference as a top 5 card on the DFT pretty much assures a player a full schedule.

It’s important to keep in mind that, despite her strong play, nothing is guaranteed for Harigae. Two players in recent years (Liz Janangelo and Ashley Prange) won twice on the DFT and ended the season sixth on the money list, narrowly missing out on LPGA cards.

So far, though, Harigae’s decision to quit college and toil on the Futures Tour seems to be working in her favor. Her mother comes out on the road early each week to make sure she’s settled in and brings food from the family’s Japanese restaurant – Takara.

Harigae travels with her caddie, Tom Cermack, a former lawyer who worked for Harigae at several USGA events. The two celebrated her first win at McDonald’s, and then drove on to the next site.

There’s nothing glamorous about this life, but Harigae can’t complain.

“I needed to find my swagger,” she said.

Mission accomplished.

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