Both 20-year-olds have their sights set firmly on the LPGA. One of my 1st questions to Mika was about her decision to bypass the JLPGA and head straight to the LPGA's Q-School in 2008. She told me that having played with Ya Ni Tseng in the Junior World Championship in 2006 (she was too modest to mention she won with a -16 total, beating Tseng by 3 shots!) and seen what kind of success her friend had in her rookie season, it's been her own dream to play here also. She's proud that she's come from her small island of Okinawa to this big place and appreciates the warmth that galleries in the U.S. have shown her. She doesn't know, however, if other young Japanese players will aim for the LPGA and wasn't sure why comparatively few have tried (at least relative to the dozens of Korean golfers who have followed in Se Ri Pak's footsteps). To my knowledge, she's the 1st-ever female Japanese golfer to begin her professional career on the LPGA. Unlike Ai Miyazato, Momoko Ueda, Ji-Yai Shin, Inbee Park, Young Kim, Seon Hwa Lee, and Teresa Lu, she isn't even maintaining dual membership on both tours. Mina, too, doesn't want to play full-time or even part-time on the JLPGA. While she may play a couple of events in Japan a year, she doesn't plan to shoot for dual membership, reasoning that "this is where you have to make it big." A California girl through and through, she hasn't been to Japan since she was 13 and understands more Japanese than she can speak, so there doesn't seem to be much of a cultural or linguistic gravitational "pull" toward the JLPGA. So whether the path is via Miyazato's global mindset or Harigae's American one, the end goal is clear for both 20-year-olds: make their marks on the LPGA.
As you might expect, both had interesting perspectives on life on tour, as well. Both had big adjustments to make from what they were accustomed to. For Mika, of course, it meant learning how to navigate in a new country, language, and culture, but both players spoke to on-course differences, as well, particularly in layouts and setups. Mina noted that the quality of the competition and the courses was a huge step up from the Futures Tour and amateur golf. With the greens being much firmer than she was used to, she quickly realized that "you can't just go at everything" on the LPGA and have to think your way around the course much more. Similarly, Mika pointed to the greater length and difficulty of many LPGA courses.
Neither player is satisfied with her progress to date. Harigae has made only 2 cuts in 5 starts and has yet to crack the top 50 this season. Her transition to the LPGA, she said,
Hasn't been quite as smooth as I wanted it to be. All these girls can play. It was a lot harder than I expected. I think it's a good thing, you know? It just shows that these players are really good...they really are the best in the world.
Whereas Miyazato has missed only 1 cut in 9 starts this season, she's cracked the top 20 only once. Having been the 54-hole leader in the '09 Japan Women's Open until enduring a Dustin-Johnson-at-Pebble-like final round and finished T11 at the Women's British Open that season, she has high expectations and seems disappointed that even though she's more familiar with the tournaments and travel routines on the LPGA, she's not on pace yet to improve on her rookie season's results.
Each player is focusing on a different aspect of her short game right now to get her season going. For Miyazato, who finished T4 at last year's Wegmans event at Locust Hill, but who hadn't yet been out on the course this year at the time of our interview, her top priority was her chipping. She hit about 69% of her greens in regulation at Locust Hill, which meant she had to play recovery shots around the greens 22 times that week. And she knows with the course lengthened and the rough up, it's going to be much tougher to hit greens, even for someone who's been hitting the fairway off the tee almost 76% of the time and averaging almost 250 yards off the tee. So clearly her strategy has to do with taking as much pressure off her putter as possible (although she did keep her cards close to her chest during the interview itself).
Harigae, by contrast, thinks the best way to get her season on the right track is by focusing on the flat stick. She thought this week might end up being a "putting contest," plus she's looking ahead to the rest of the season and the fight to keep her card and get into the Rookie of the Year race. As she told me,
A lot of it has to do with confidence. You know, getting off to a tough start is a little hard to come back from, but my game is there. It's all in my head. I just need to believe in myself more.... I think everyone has some sort of things that they have to fight. Right now [for her] it's putting. My ball-striking is generally pretty good. A lot of it has to do with putting and having confidence with those short putts.
She's being modest about her ball-striking, hitting the fairway just over 76% of the time and averaging almost 241 yards off the tee. Although her GIR percentage, like Miyazato's, is low for a precision player (both are hovering around 65%), I would say that from what I observed of Mika last year at the Wegmans and Mina in the Monday pro-am this year, both have great swings. (I particularly like Mina's pre-shot routine, where she first aligns her club to her target, balancing the end of the grip on one hand as she does so, then aligns her body to the club as she takes her grip and stance, readies herself, and uses a small knee bend to trigger her backswing.) Harigae's swing is maybe a little smoother and rhythmic than Miyazato's--I saw her rush her downswing only once off the tee and once from the rough all 9 holes I watched--but both keep the ball in play and put themselves in good positions to attack pins. Given the similarities in their ball-striking, it's striking that Harigae is taking more putts per green in regulation than Miyazato (1.83 to 1.80) and is averaging more putts per round (30.6 to 29.5), as well. That combination of stats suggests that she's absolutely right to be focusing on her putting. That, and the fact that the few times her team missed a green on the back nine, she nearly chipped in every time.
My sense is that both players have the games and attitudes for long-term LPGA success. By my count, Harigae was easily flying her tee shots 240 yards and ending up in the 245-260 range on Locust Hill's soft fairways. She's not at all concerned about distance, saying,
I think more distance will come as I get older. Getting stronger, keep working out. I'm not going to change my swing. I'm already plenty long.... In general I don't feel that long players have an advantage, because you have to keep it in the fairway. Unless they're hitting it straight, they don't have that huge of an advantage.
It's refreshing to hear a 20-year-old be that confident in her game and her future. I think so many great players ran into trouble when Annika upgraded her distance and messed up their swings or their bodies trying to keep up with or catch up to her. The point is to learn how to play your own game to the best of your ability, not someone else's. I think Miyazato, who counts both Tseng and Ji-Yai Shin as her closest friends on tour (she calls Shin "onechan" [big sister] and "sempai" [kind of like leader-mentor, used as a term of respect for someone a little older than you whom you look up to and who takes care of you]), understands this, as well. Tseng is a bomber while Shin is a precision player. Miyazato's game is much closer to Shin's than Tseng's. She knows what it takes to close the gap yet further, what it's like to deal with nerves on the final day of a major, and that no matter what you do travel across the U.S. and around the world will always be "taihen" (difficult/challenging).
Of course, compared to where Ai Miyazato was at age 20, both Harigae and Miyazato are unpolished, both on and off the course. (It didn't help that I was absolutely no polish as an interviewer, either!) But, then, neither of them have had quite the level of early success--and media attention--as Ai-sama. I'm confident that 5 years from now, when they're the age Ai-sama is now, we'll have moved from seeing them as diamonds in the rough to gems of the LPGA.