“What sport is that?” a 10-year-old Lana Yamagata asked her father, Isaac, in their New York hotel room during their summer 2017 vacation.
“That’s golf,” Isaac Yamagata responded as the U.S. Open aired on television.
Those four words, that single question, laid the foundation of Lana’s love and passion for the sport. What started as an opportunity for Lana, currently a South Pasadena High School freshman, to spend more time with her father evolved into an influence that has helped shape her young life.
“At a certain point, she took up the game because she saw it as a way to spend more time with me,” Isaac said. “I think that sort of kick-started the whole process and then, as she started to realize that the game was dependent on her and not a team, that became more interesting for her. When she discovered golf, that it’s this game where you can win and you are the only person that determines that, it became this fascination for her.”
When Lana first picked up the sport, she described herself as an inconsistent player. But a few short years later and Lana earned a starting varsity position as a freshman as well as a bid to compete in the CIF Division 2 individual finals yesterday. (Her result was unavailable by the Review’s press deadline.)
“As I continued to play, my love for it grew because I could see my progress being made and also people who surrounded me in the game impacted me a lot,” Lana said. “I made a ton of new friends and they helped me understand my love for the game.”
Senior Lauren Calderon, Lana’s teammate and friend who recently signed a letter of intent to play collegiate golf at the University of California, Davis, has helped the young star develop as a player.
“She’s been a super big role model to me,” Lana said. “On the golf course, she helps me stay calm if I make a questionable shot. In one of my first matches, she helped me know the ground and how to manage myself around the golf course. She helped me understand what needed to be done to be successful during matches and what was needed of me, but it was honestly a really big inspiration to me knowing she’s a D-1 player.”
Isaac Yamagata said golf is a game that is very suitable to Lana’s personality, which he described as goal-oriented.
“Golf is one of those sports where it’s all on you,” Isaac said. “You want to be good at the game; you have to be on top of all of your aspects all the time if you want to play well. For her, golf is great for her personality because she has to rely on herself and she knows if she doesn’t do the work, then she’s not going to do well.”
Golf has been a part of Isaac’s life since childhood and it’s how he makes a living — he is a golf professional, teaches golf and currently finished his second season as the SPHS girls’ golf head coach. With that pedigree, it seemed only fitting that Lana take up the sport.
Former South Pasadena Principal Janet Anderson and Athletic Director Anthony Chan met with Isaac Yamagata before Lana started her high school career. The concern was to avoid the potential appearance of a father-coach showing favoritism toward his daughter, so Isaac developed a ranking system for players to have the opportunity to earn a starting position consistently.
“All the girls have to play to a certain ability in order to make the starting rotation,” Isaac said. “They have to go out on the golf course and they have to compete against each other, and they have to play an internal tournament. Based on their performance in that tournament, that’s what gets them on to varsity and then into a certain ranking position on the team. I don’t actually do anything in terms of determining whether or not [Lana] is going to be playing; it’s all her.”
Isaac said the system helps avoid any question of favoritism. Additionally, every two weeks after the season started, the Tigers had a challenge day where any player — even those already in the starting rotation — could challenge another teammate for their position.
Lana has been terrific by averaging 33 strokes on nine-hole matches that typically are held at par-36 courses.
Although she was nervous during tryouts, Lana said it was a “dream come true” when she earned her varsity spot. She described the feeling as being in a movie and an overall great opportunity.
“What’s made her successful and is making her successful, especially at this age, is just because her personality dictates that it’s all on her; she wants to do the work and she really enjoys the game, which is really important for me because if she doesn’t enjoy the game, I am not the type of parent who’s going to force something on her just because she’s good at it. I want her to have fun.”
Depending on Lana’s performance on Thursday, she has a chance to earn a CIF State Championship appearance at Pebble Beach Poppy Hills Golf Course, which starts next Tuesday, Nov. 16.