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 arcade.
"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 ultra-competitive, 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 Golf-Mart, 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.