He first captured Japan’s attention four years ago. Now he is quite possibly its biggest star.
He captured the gallery’s attention at Firestone Country Club on Thursday with one of the most remarkable up-and-downs on any golf course anywhere in the world. Now he is possibly one round away from his first victory on American soil and another glowing chapter in a fast-growing legacy.
Ryo Ishikawa enters today’s final round at the Bridgestone Invitational11 under par, 1 stroke behind leader Adam Scott. Ishikawa shot a bogey-free 6-under 64 on Saturday to forge a tie with Jason Day for second.
At 19, he is already considered the Tiger Woods of Japan. He has 16 sponsorships, including Toyota and Coca-Cola Japan. He was a celebrity judge on Japan’s wildly popular New Year’s Eve singing competition and he has already surpassed baseball stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui in iconic status.
“When he participates in events, the attendance doubles,” Japan Golf Tour spokesman Hiro Watanabe said through an interpreter.
America has witnessed its fair share of child prodigies, but Ishikawa might just rise above them all. LeBron James was a sophomore in high school when the rest of the country discovered him. Woods and Michelle Wie were both 20 when they won for the first time on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour, respectively.
Ishikawa was a 15-year-old high school freshman when he earned his first victory on the Japan Tour. He has won 11 times already and set a Japan Tour record by shooting 58 last year — all before his 20th birthday next month.
“He’s a lot more mature as a golfer than I was at 19,” Scott said. “I was pretty raw and just turned pro and didn’t know much at all about anything to do with the tour, and he’s been doing it for four years. It’s tough to win out here. He’s making the right steps.”
The stories of Earl Woods teaching a young Tiger are legendary. Tiger began playing before he was 2 and first broke 80 when he was 8.
Similarly, Ryo’s father is an amateur golfer who introduced the game to his 6-year-old son. Ryo learned the game as a young boy on Japan’s driving ranges.
Golf is fairly popular in Japan, Watanabe said, but few of the golfers ever leave home. In fact, there are already rumblings in Japan over Ishikawa. His sponsors want him to stay, but golf fans in Japan want him to become a global star.
He’s well on his way.
“This kid is really amazing,” said Scott, who played with Ishikawa in the Presidents Cup a couple of years ago. “We all should keep out of his way and let him mature. He’s only 19. He’s got everything in front of him.”
Ishikawa has already shown his maturity despite his youth. He is donating prize money this year to Japan’s ongoing earthquake and tsunami relief. Entering the weekend, Ishikawa had donated more than $927,000.
“Japan is still in a devastating situation,” Ishikawa said through a translator. “There are people that have no homes right now and we don’t know how long it’s going to take for Japan to recover. I would just like to give my support to Japan.”
Ishikawa has struggled at home this season, and his past success hasn’t translated well overseas.
He hasn’t won an event in Japan yet this season and he was one of the final entrants into Bridgestone’s field, finishing second last weekend to climb to 49th in the world rankings. The top 50 are assured slots at the WGC event.
He was a relative unknown here until Thursday, when an errant shot on 18 left him inside a temporary immovable obstruction (TIO).
Slugger White, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, was called over to help untangle the situation. Ishikawa was given relief, but his options were limited. White asked him what he wanted to do, to which Ishikawa said he “liked it in there.”
So Ishikawa, 55 yards from the hole, hit his shot from behind a picket fence and next to a lamppost. It landed 11 feet from the pin and he made the putt to save par — to the amazement of even White.
“That’s pretty impressive,” White said.
Ishikawa’s confidence has been building since he tied for 20th at the Masters Tournament this year. He followed that up by finishing 30th at the U.S. Open before missing the cut last month at the British Open.
“It was a little hard for me to control the mental side of the game,” he said. “Since the Masters, it has started to become fun to play in the States.”
Ishikawa admits to getting homesick at times, but he also enjoys the anonymity a tournament like this provides. He is mobbed anytime he steps outside in Japan. Here, he quietly blends in. Still, when he recently chopped off his long hair, everyone noticed — including Woods, who asked him recently why he cut his hair.
“Too hot here,” Ishikawa said. Then he was taken aback when a reporter asked him why he did away with his perm.
“I thought no one really cared that much,” he said.
Ishikawa concedes he has no idea what to expect in today’s final round because he’s been inconsistent lately.
“The golf that I’m playing right now is unstable in a sense,” he said. “Considering that, I’m not really sure how I will perform. Instead of going in there and telling myself I need to compete, I look at it as going out on the practice field and taking practice swings. That has been my theme.”
It’s working. Saturday’s 6 under was easily his best American round. Future success, including victories, seems inevitable..
When his round was complete, a butterfly landed on his knee while he was waiting for a CBS interview to begin with broadcaster David Feherty.
Feherty looked at Ishikawa and pointed at his knee.
“That’s good luck,” he said, motioning to the butterfly.
Ishikawa looked down and shrugged.
The way it’s going, he might not need any luck today.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://cavs.ohio.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.