Lana Yamagata and her father Isaac relax following a South Pasadena team practice at Alhambra Golf Course. With Lana emerging as a solid competitive player as she began high school, Isaac foun an avenue back to teaching young people the game he grew up loving.

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor

Don’t try to convince Isaac Yamagata that you can’t make doing what you love into a “real” job.

The second-year girls’ golf coach at South Pasadena grew up as a sports-loving kid, and was on the path toward a career in golf, when it seemed reality scuttled his dreams.

“When I finally realized I needed to get a big-boy job, I went back to school got an MBA and went into investment banking for a few years,” said Yamagata, 49, after a team practice at Alhambra Golf Course.

He founded a few startup companies, mostly golf-related, but a TV broadcast, fan loyalty, a global shutdown – and his curious daughter – led him back into the lifestyle he always knew was the right fit.

Yamagata was born in a small town in southern Idaho, and lived on his grandfather’s potato farm until he was 11 years old. That’s when the family sold the farm and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My grandad was from Sugar City, Idaho,” he explained. “He attended public school until the third or fourth grade, but was kicked out because he was Japanese. He ended up working on farms, then joined military when he was of age.”

John Tsushiro Yamagata served with the Military Intelligence Service during World War II, spending much of his enlistment interrogating Japanese POWs in the Philippines, according to Isaac.

“Eventually, he established his own farm in Idaho, working to be sure his family had more and better opportunities than he had. He had seven kids. All went to college and grad school and were reasonably successful.”

In Northern California, Isaac was a standout on the high school baseball team, and his college career looked promising, until an injury essentially threw him off that trajectory. Filling the athletic void was golf, as he had grown up spending a fair amount of time on local links.

Taking a semester off to rethink and recharge, he found himself doing not much anything in Hawaii, soaking up the sun and getting in the occasional rounds. That’s when his father injected a dose of reality, pushing him to find employment.

Lana Yamagata working on her short game at Arroyo Seco.

“My dad had a friend who coached golf, and one of his prodigies was assistant at Olympic Club,” Yamagata said.

Soon enough, he was at work in San Francisco, at the oldest athletic club in the U.S. The Olympic Club has hosted several men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, as well as PGA Tour championships and other prestigious events.

“I was pulling bags and washing carts for about six months,” Yamagata recalled. “At one point, the head pro discovered that I knew how to use a computer. He brought me into the golf shop to help with the inventory management system, and once he realized I could do a lot of things that he needed, he made me one of the assistants.”

In the process of working in the shop, he shadowed his boss to learn all he could about the workings of the club.

“I followed him around and asked if he would help me learn how to teach other players, and ended up teaching there for about eight years,” he said.

Yamagata tried his own hand at playing professionally, competing in several so-called mini-tour events throughout California, such as the Pepsi Tour. He also caddied for other professionals.

There ultimately came a point when golf wasn’t paying the bills. He established himself in the business world, building startups, and was active in the Bay Area Nikkei community and the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League

In 2011, his young family decided a move to Southern California was in order. His daughter Lana was well-involved with a variety of sports by the time she was nine years old, but didn’t show a fervent passion for any game in particular.

She was, however, along with her dad, an ardent fan of the San Francisco Giants.

“We used to take trips to follow the Giants when they played in different cities around the country,” Isaac said. “We had gone to see them play against the Red Sox and then the Yankees. It happened to be the same weekend that the U.S. Open was being played in New York. I was watching the tournament on TV in the hotel room and Lana asked what the sport was.”

“That looks fun,” Lana told her dad.

By the time they arrived back home in L.A., Isaac was already eagerly devising a pathway back to the golf course.

“From that point, I weaseled my way back into the golf industry,” he boasted. “I convinced my wife I didn’t need to work corporate any more, and that I could make a living teaching again.”

Coach Yamagata studies the form of a South Pas player looking to move up in the team rankings.

His experience teaching in the junior program at the Olympic Club, along with success in instructing high school and college players, has spelled considerable success for Yamagata, but it was two completely unforeseen developments that thrust him into a new world of coaching.

“When Lana was about to start ninth grade, I heard from the principal at South Pasadena that their golf coach was retiring,” he said. Worried the school wouldn’t be very discerning in their hire of a new coach, he inquired about the job.

“I thought if Lana’s going to play high school golf for four years, I wanted to be sure she has fun and has the opportunity to improve her game,” he said.

For decades, Richard Goto had been a beloved math teacher in addition to the head golf coach at South Pas. His retirement was well-timed, coming just before the coronavirus pandemic halted practically all facets of life in early 2020.

When school got back to limited in-person activities for Lana’s freshman year, golf was one of the few sports that could be played in a relative normal fashion.

“It was one of the only sports being played that fall, as it’s an individual sport and outdoors,” Yamagata explained. “It was a challenge to sort of maneuver through the school process, setting up protocols and making sure the parents felt the kids were safe, rotating them in small groups, 45 minutes at a time.”

Seemingly in spite of the ongoing reshaping of how high school sports are conducted, Lana instantly demonstrated her ability to thrive on the course. Now a sophomore, she’s the top player and co-captain of the South Pas team. She also plays 50-60 youth events during the year outside of high school, boasting nine first-place finishes on the Southern California PGA Junior Tour in 2022, including a win at the Arcadia Spring Classic that saw her sink three consecutive birdies and five overall.

South Pasadena takes its 5-3 Rio Hondo League record into the CIF playoffs beginning next week. Lana has been a driving force for the Tigers. In their September match against La Cañada, she shot a blazing 34, as South Pas opened up a 19-stroke lead at one point.

Not bad for a player who barely recalls taking up the sport.

“I don’t even remember starting,” she said. “I continue to play because it’s fun and it’s kind of satisfying seeing the ball jump off the club face, and (sweeping a hand over her head) whoosh!”

The 15-year-old finds that the camaraderie with other players keeps the game enjoyable.

“It’s fun getting to know people, watching people on the course and seeing them score well. It kind of motivates me to see see other people do well, and try harder myself.”

Lana cites her performance in last year’s CIF playoffs as some of her best rounds. After making it through the first two rounds, she qualified for the Southern California Regionals at Brookside. One hole was the difference that kept her from the State Championships.

“All the girls I play with are all really positive,” she said. “I had a double or triple bogey, and that hole was the reason I didn’t move on. If I had just made par on that hole, I would have matched the qualifying score.”

Now wiser and more experienced on the course, Lana is a top student in the classroom, posting near-perfect grades amid the COVID chaos of her first high school year. She said she’s becoming more aware of her Japanese heritage, with a love of anime and a penchant for Asian languages.

“My friends are trying to convince me to learn Korean, because it’s easier than many other languages,” she said enthusiastically. “They said I should learn so we can talk to each other in Korean and we’d be so cool!”

At this point in the game, the eventual plan is to try to earn a college scholarship via golf, with a definite eye toward Division 1. Lana’s mother, Tricia, said there isn’t a rush, though.

“She’s good at finding her own balance. The goal is to play D1 golf, but at same time find a school with strong academics,” Tricia said. “Some schools have taken notice, but for now, we want to let her focus on being a kid. She hopes to play some national tournaments soon, but right now, we’re fine just taking little steps.”

Isaac said the experience of coaching in the context of high school has taught him a great deal and he watches his daughter and the other kids benefit from all that prep sports brings.

Last year, the new coach organized a team golf-a-thon fundraiser at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course in South Pasadena. The team raised more than $9,000 for their program and to host youth clinics to develop a passion for local golf.

“He has done a great job of organizing and empowering the young ladies to build and create positive energy around their program,” South Pasadena Athletic Director Anthony Chan told a local newspaper.

“I think what’s great about golf. Even though it’s a team sport in high school, it’s still basically an individual sport,” Isaac noted. “Having played baseball and been a team sport guy, and also having played golf, I knew the value of being part of a team. With golf, part of the challenge is getting the kids to feel like it’s a team, but at the same time understand they’re out there on their own during a tournament.

“Most golfers are people who function well on their own. They tend to be typically high-performance kids have high expectations of themselves academically and on the golf course. It’s a good sport for Type-A kids, who are often perfectionists in life. Golf requires a certain level of perfectionism, but it’s great that ultimately, these kids are out there because they want to be.”

Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo

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