At Peace on the Course
April 20, 2007
BERKELEY, Calif. -
By Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz
To find peace with golf, Mika Takayama had to travel all the way to Japan.
Now a 23-year-old senior on the California women's golf team, Takayama is a Bay Area native who honed her skills as a member of the boys' team at Alameda High School. But after earning All-Pac-10 honors as a Golden Bear freshman in 2002-03, she felt inspired to move to her parents' homeland to concentrate on her chosen sport.
'There were a lot of reasons for the move,' said Takayama, who had periodically visited Japan previously. 'Looking back, it was to find myself. I wanted to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I really wanted to pursue golf. That's all I did there. I decided that I was going to play golf professionally, but that I should graduate just incase golf didn't work out.'
Many of the golfers Takayama grew up playing with in Northern California are now on the pro tour, but stars such as Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Christina Kim didn't graduate from college.
'I always felt I was different from them,' Takayama said. 'I am dedicated to school and am going to college to get a degree.'
After leaving Cal, Takayama spent a year and a half living in an apartment next to Santo Country Club in the province of Hyogoken. She was thrust into being responsible for her own training and management of her personal affairs.
Initially, Takayama didn't enter tournaments, instead focusing on practicing and adjusting to her new life. Her best finish came at the Katokichi Queens Tournament - the first Japan Ladies Professional Golf Association (JLPGA) event she played in as anamateur - when she placed 32nd with her maternal grandmother in attendance.
'I was close to making the cut in a few others,' Takayama said. 'I gradually started to play a little worse because I got homesick. It started to affect my golf game.'
Takayama's mother's family lives in Shikoku, which is a four-hour train ride from Hyogoken. Hiroaki, Takayama's father, came to visit her twice to provide coaching and support, and Mika visited California several times.
But by late fall in 2004, Takayama was prepared to return to California and resume her status as a Cal student-athlete. She came back to the Bay Area with the conviction that she wanted to earn her degree from the nation's No. 1 public university, help the Bears win a national title and pursue a career on the JLPGA.
Once the decision was made, Cal head coach Nancy McDaniel welcomed Takayama back to her squad.
'She would always call my house to see how I was doing,' Takayama said. 'I knew she really wanted me to come back. I just didn't know when I'd be ready to. I was sick of being by myself. I don't think I was ready for that kind of life yet. I felt like I was growing up too fast. I wanted to come back and be on a team.'
Since Takayama's arrival back on campus in January 2005, she has helped Cal finish fifth at the 2005 and 2006 NCAA championships and has received two honorable mention Pac-10 All-Academic accolades. Last season, she was chosen the team's Most Improved Player and helped the Bears join Duke as the only schools to finish in the top five at the last three national championships.
Takayama's biggest area of improvement during her time away from the Cal campus came in her short game, which has helped her raise the overall quality of her play.
'The driving ranges are small in Japan, so I couldn't hit that many long shots,' Takayama said. 'They would always have a putting and chipping green, so I would chip and putt all of the time. My short game became very precise.'
McDaniel agreed that Takayama benefited from her time in Japan.
'Mika has elevated her short game to another level,' McDaniel said. 'She has become more of a mature golfer, way more savvy around the greens. She is much more in tune with what she wants to do with golf and with her life.'
Takayama is the veteran on this year's Bears team, which features three freshmen and two sophomores. The 5-3 Takayama appreciates life as a Golden Bear.
'Once you turn pro, you practice by yourself most of the time,' Takayama said. 'That can get boring. It's nice to be able to practice with other people and have a coach to provide guidance.'
Despite Takayama's interest in returning to Japan, her roots are clearly in the Bay Area. Takayama, an only child who was born in San Francisco and raised in Alameda, accompanied her parents to local golf courses as a toddler, and when she was five, she could already make contact with the ball.
By the time Takayama turned seven, she started taking lessons. By 10, she was competing in Northern California junior tournaments, and she starred on the American Junior Golf Association circuit when she was 15.Takayama's connection to Cal started during this early stage of her career; as a 12-year-old, she was grouped with McDaniel in a U.S. Open qualifier.
'It was such a coincidence that I got grouped with Coach,' Takayama said. 'I felt comfortable deciding to go to Cal because I knew the coach already from playing with her and seeing her at a lot of junior tournaments.'
Unlike some college seniors, Takayama has developed a blueprint for her career. She qualified for the LPGA's Futures Tour last November and will start playing in events in June. Then in August, she will start taking steps necessary for qualifying for the Japan LPGA. The process will continue into the fall and will allow her to return to the United State periodically to sharpen her game on the Futures Tour.
Takayama is excited to buck the trend of Japanese athletes playing professionally in the United States.
'I think I'll be more appreciated being Japanese,' she said. 'They really like me there and want me to do well. I think I'll have more sponsorship opportunities. A lot of baseball players and the top female golfer came over here to play. They'll appreciate someone like me coming to Japan to play.'
If her golf career doesn't pan out, Takayama will have her interdisciplinary studies degree, with an emphasis on international relations, completed by the spring of 2008. Being bilingual in Japanese and English, she figures her skills might lead to business opportunities as a translator.
Takayama also has an appetite for fashion, an interest that was partially inspired by her mother, Kumiko, who works at Nieman Marcus.
'My dream goal is to become a top professional golfer and create my own clothing line,' Takayama said. 'In order for me to have my own clothing line, I have to be a top golfer so that people will actually want to buy my clothes!'