Harigae Has Friend For Life
By Ken Klavon, USGA
North Plains, Ore. – Hidden beyond the tall red fescue, immersed in the environment around him, Mina Harigae’s staunchest supporter fiddled about Tuesday.
Every now and then, Brandon Genco would drop a plastic bottle, walk ahead of the action or ask questions. Many of them would have to do with Harigae, the 16-year-old sprite from Monterey, Calif., bursting with talent.
“There’s her biggest fan right there,” said Harigae’s caddie, Peter Flach, walking down the ninth fairway nodding toward Genco.
Genco traveled all the way from Sea Girt, N.J., to watch Harigae. He looked like any other prepubescent kid in his blue striped shirt, a hat almost too large for his head and oversized feet, indicative of a nearing growth spurt. The only difference is that Genco has autism.
A couple of years ago Genco was introduced to Harigae by Flach, who also resides in Sea Girt and is scheduled to marry Genco’s mother, Phyllis Chenowith. Harigae befriended him two years ago and gradually introduced Genco to junior players Esther Choe, Joanne Lee and Jane Rah. She had no reservations about it, either.
“He’s actually high-functioning,” said Harigae after shooting a 3-over 74 Tuesday. “He’s good on a social-functional level and you can talk to him like he’s a normal kid.”
Rah met him at the Junior Heritage at Hilton Head Island, S.C., in February.
“When he’s around with us – with me, Mina, Jo – you would never know he has autism,” said Rah, adding that she actually didn’t find out until later when Flach told her.
According to the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects every one in 166 births. Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. People with it can show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities, states the Society of America Web site.
Genco said that he normally keeps in contact with Harigae via text messaging. They’ll talk about school, maybe his golf game and what he’s up to. He’s made special trips to watch her play competitively three or four times, he couldn’t remember. He always comes away with something, namely a trademark Harigae smile.
“She says hi, gives me a golf ball,” said Genco. “One day she sent me a hat from the Junior Ryder Cup.”
Although Genco listed Harigae as his favorite female golfer, he also admires professionals Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington. He made it known that he prefers Harrington over Furyk; Harrington because he walked up, spoke to him and signed an autograph. He met both at the Target World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., earlier this year.
Last night Genco’s disposition was of concern for Harigae.
“He was very worried about her making the cut,” said Flach.
After a couple of speed bumps in her round Tuesday, she advanced into match play. Harigae could have come unglued after incurring a one-stroke penalty on the par-4 third hole while in the fairway. With club in hand, she tried swatting away a large fly from her wrist even though she hadn’t addressed the ball. The ball moved, fellow competitor Shannon Rouillard challenged it, and a Rules official was alerted. The official deemed that since the ball moved, the penalty should be enforced. Harigae didn’t debate it even though she was momentarily perturbed.
“It’s OK,” said Harigae, a four-time California State Women’s Amateur champion. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
She pounded her next shot, 225 yards to the hole, 15 feet above the flagstick. “I try to channel my anger into my shots,” said Harigae, co-medalist at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and outright medalist at the Girls’ Junior this year.
Off to the side, Genco sensed Harigae’s frustration and funneled his own concern through Harigae’s aunt, Marsha. She told him everything was going to be fine. Perhaps Genco could relate because he’s taken up golf himself, finishing third in his age group at a recent New Jersey event.
Harigae hasn’t seen him play but would like to. They’ll get as far as the driving range “but then he gets shy” and won’t hit shots, she said.
However, like an astute scholar, Genco sops up everything Harigae does. When it comes to sage advice, in his mind there’s no one better.
“Practice, practice, practice,” he said of what she tells him. “It makes everything good.”
Even if it is a text message.
Ken Klavon is the USGA’s Web Editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.