On a March afternoon in Monterey, Calif., the state's reigning
queens of amateur golf sat down to lunch at a bayside restaurant.
They smoothed their napkins over their laps, requested tap water
without lemon and started to catch up.
"I got the new Toya and Creed CDs!" Mina Harigae burst out,
surreptitiously adjusting the retainer that covers her top teeth.
"I kind of like that new Backstreet Boys song too."
Sydney Burlison, who prefers Linkin Park, scrunched up her face
in disapproval and picked at her garlic bread with
glitter-chipped fingernails. "Have you heard that Coke causes
cancer?" she asked.
At a nearby table a heavyset man wearing a Pebble Beach golf
shirt tried to stare down their high-pitched chatter, unaware
that the scrawny objects of his rancor could beat him straight up
on any course on the Monterey Peninsula. "People don't recognize
us when we're not in our golf clothes," Mina said later as she
and Sydney pushed back from the remnants of their carbo-loaded
lunches. With an important junior tournament three days away,
both had swing lessons and strength workouts scheduled for later
that afternoon, leaving only an hour to play at the nearby
May 12, 2002
"We are only 12," said Sydney.
Gangly and giggly, Mina (4'11", 90 pounds) and Sydney (5'5", 112
pounds) fool a lot of people. They may look like their pictures
belong on a box of Girl Scout cookies, but they are
ultracompetitive, steel-nerved phenoms who pulled off a historic
one-two finish in the California Women's Amateur last November,
conquering a field of much older and more experienced players.
The two girls met at a golf clinic five years ago. A 30-minute
drive past lettuce fields and verdant fairways separates the
Harigae's stucco cottage near the seaside cliffs of Pacific Grove
and the Burlison's ranch-style house in the flats of Salinas.
Mina's father, Yasunori, who emigrated from Tokyo in 1976, and
her mother, Mafumi, who was born near Osaka but has lived in
Northern California since she was 10, run a sushi restaurant in
Pacific Grove. Sydney is the eldest of four children of Bob
Burlison, a deputy district attorney of Monterey County, and his
wife, Joan, a victim's advocate in the DA's office. While the two
sixth-graders run with different crowds--Mina goes to Walter
Colton Middle School in Monterey, and Sydney attends Mission Park
Elementary in Salinas--they get together once or twice a week.
Sometimes their play dates include shopping for
cotton-candy-colored school clothes at the mall or feeding tokens
into Pump, their favorite arcade game on Monterey's Cannery Row.
More often, their time together involves weight training at a
gym, putting on the slick practice greens at Pebble Beach Golf
Links or business trips to GolfMart, where they debate the merits
of steel versus titanium.
"It's hard to play golf with other people our age," says Mina.
"Mina's my only friend who I can play with," says Sydney.
Rivals as well as friends, they are poster children for the
benefits of friendly competition. "Mina will push past Sydney one
year," says Nick Nelson, who has coached both of them, "and the
next year Sydney will squeak by Mina." With more than 100 wins
between them, Mina and Sydney have passed runner-up status back
and forth like kids playing tag. At the California Women's
Amateur, Mina defeated two-time defending champion Lynne Cowan,
39, in the third round on the way to meeting Sydney in the final.
Before a gallery of more than 150 gaping spectators and their
parents, who walked together, the girls attacked Carmel Valley's
Quail Lodge course with arrow-straight drives and elegant chip
shots. The day belonged to Mina, who among many highlights hit a
five-wood to within a foot of the pin on the 208-yard 8th hole.
She beat Sydney 3 and 2 to become the youngest champion (by two
years) in the 35-year history of the event, which counts LPGA
Hall of Famers Juli Inkster and Patty Sheehan among its former
winners. Following the match (amid what they later privately
agreed were "kind of phony questions") Mina said, "I'm happy, but
I'm also sad because Sydney's my best friend. I wish we both
could have won." After collecting their hardware the girls went
straight to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
These days, Sydney's commemorative platter from the Amateur is
wedged between a collection of nearly 50 trophies on her bedroom
bureau. Mina's 72-year-old grandmother, Masako, who lives with
the family, insists that her granddaughter's trophies be stored
in the attic. The state champion's silver cup, however, is
allowed to share space with Mina's litter of Hello Kitty stuffed
animals. The girls' mutually prepared statement remains, "We both
did O.K. that day."
Such stunning victories are becoming typical in a sport whose
newest stars are a fearless brigade of preteens. Whereas Annika
Sorenstam had barely taken up golf when she was 12, a growing
number of middle schoolers are now regularly breaking par. This
is especially true among girls, whose bodies tend to develop
earlier than boys' and whose tournaments have less rigid
age-group delineations, allowing preteens to play alongside
college-bound golfers and seasoned amateurs. Morgan Pressel, who
was 12 when she qualified for the 2001 U.S. Women's Open last
May, is the world's 29th-ranked junior. Five-foot-eleven Michelle
Wie, 12, is not ranked, because she eschews junior tournaments to
try her hand at pro events. (In February she became the youngest
player to advance through Monday qualifying into an LPGA event,
at the Takefuji Classic.) Without Wie to contend with as of yet,
Mina and Sydney are currently the two youngest players in the top
60 of girls' junior golf, ranked No. 58 and No. 50, respectively.
By today's standards, Mina and Sydney actually got a late start
in golf. At five they were still tagging along after their
fathers, who both played recreationally. Bob Burlison, who
coached Salinas's Palma High to the boys' basketball Division 4
state championship in 1992, has done everything in his power to
make up for lost time. Sydney regularly sees a sports
psychologist and has traveled to Tempe, Ariz., for a session with
Pia Nilsson, the coach of the Swedish national team who molded
Sorenstam and numerous other LPGA standouts. About once a week
Sydney takes a one-hour lesson with Laird Small, one of Golf
Magazine's Top 100 teachers, whose stable includes the PGA Tour's
Kirk Triplett and the LPGA's Sara Sanders. "Bob leaves no stone
unturned," says Small, whose teaching tent at Pebble Beach Golf
Academy includes a computerized swing-tracking system that allows
him to e-mail to Sydney split-screen videos of her tee shots next
to those of Sorenstam and Tiger Woods.
With three boys ages two through seven besides Sydney, the
Burlisons pay for clubs, lessons, travel and tournament fees by
maintaining a modestly appointed home and keeping nongolf travel
to a minimum. "Some people don't believe in spending so much
money on a child's golf education," says Bob, "but we're trying
to give Sydney building blocks."
Mina's golf education is more streamlined. Area coaches often use
the word natural when talking about her. Mina took her first
lesson when she was six, as part of a community program run by
the Salvation Army. According to Mafumi she and her husband often
have to rein in Mina, who begs to attend more tournaments outside
California. "We want to do more for her, but it's so expensive to
travel, and as Mina knows, business comes first," says Mafumi.
She is the one who accompanies her daughter to tournaments while
Yasunori runs Takara, their tiny but popular eatery. When asked
about his daughter's pro prospects, Yasunori erupts in laughter
and says, "She has to finish sixth grade first!"
Aware of Mina's scholarship opportunities--greatly limited for
girls in Japan, Yasunori notes--the Harigaes have invested in
monthly private lessons with Rich Marik, who directs Nike golf
camps. "She does things that can't be taught," says Marik, citing
Mina's course-management skills and creative short game. "She's
completely self-motivated. She may be smiley, but she's out to
Before this season Bob and Mafumi sat down with their daughters
and devised their golfing schedules, including qualifying events
for the U.S. Open and a few important tournaments outside the
state. Both families understand that good performances in
high-profile events can lead to invitations to those select
national tournaments on which player ratings are based. Those
ratings, in turn, attract college coaches.
Sydney, who dreams of going to Duke, and Mina, who favors
Michigan, know how important a "full ride," as they refer to it,
would be to their families. "College first, LPGA later," Mina
said recently, slapping a high five with Sydney. A few weeks
after the California Amateur, the girls received letters of
congratulation from the University of California, whose women's
team is a perennial power. It was their first introduction to the
world of collegiate marketing, although Mafumi was approached at
a tournament last year by a man identifying himself as an IMG
representative. "What is IMG?" Mafumi asked her daughter.
Navigating the big business of amateur golf is a challenge for
any precocious athlete, but the journey is more perilous for
12-year-old girls who have yet to encounter bodily changes, boys
and burnout. While both agree they are too busy for boyfriends,
they do admit a shared crush on actor Heath Ledger, a mutually
agreed upon "hottie." To avoid exhausting their competitive
desire, both girls, who are straight-A students, have a life
outside golf. Mina swims recreationally, plays video games and
has skipped tournaments to attend science camp, while Sydney
plays youth-league basketball and goes on field trips sponsored
by her school's gifted-and-talented program. Beverly Klass, who
in 1967 became, at nine, the youngest professional ever to play
in a LPGA tournament, says that this sort of diversification is
crucial to ongoing success. "Young golfers need a world outside
of the course," says Klass, who never made it big on tour and
regrets the way in which her entry into golf's fast lane stunted
her social growth.
Time will tell whether Mina and Sydney's friendship will survive
the increasingly heated competition that awaits them. For five
years they have been practice-round allies while less-talented
older girls jealously have whispered behind their backs. "Some of
them give us dirty looks," says Mina. Sydney remembers one
incident last year in which one of her teenage competitors
offered (or perhaps threatened?) to "babysit" her during a
weekend tournament. At this point there is only one bummer about
having your best friend as your biggest competitor. "One of us
has to lose," says Sydney.
On March 25, the day the Sean Remen Memorial Classic was to be
played at the Los Altos Golf and Country Club, Sydney was the
one feeling defeated. The previous evening, not long after
getting off the telephone with Mina, she began to feel achy and
feverish. When Sydney awoke the next morning with a 102[degree]
temperature, Bob made the call to withdraw his daughter from the
"The Burlisons never miss a tournament!" a surprised Mina said
later that morning, before stepping up to the 1st tee and
drilling a 230-yard drive down the center of the fairway. With
her biggest competitor home with the flu, Mina breezed around the
pine-studded course, winning the girls' championship with a
four-over-par 76--a stroke better than the 16-year-old defending
When Mina called the next day to gossip about the tournament--who
was there, what they shot and what they wore--Sydney, whose throat
still ached, let her friend do most of the talking. Less than 24
hours later, though, Sydney was on a flight to New Mexico to
compete in an International Junior tour event, in which she would
finish second in a field sprinkled with high school seniors. On
May 14, in San Juan Bautista, Calif., there's a local qualifier
for the U.S. Women's Open. Mina and Sydney wouldn't think of
missing that one. Summer is around the corner, and it's time for
someone to make a statement.
"I wish we both could have won," Mina said after beating Sydney
to become the youngest California Amateur champ.
Both girls know how important a scholarship would be to their
families. "College first, LPGA later," Mina says.
"Mina will push past Sydney one year," says Nick Nelson, who has
coached both, "and then Sydney will squeak by Mina."