SAN FRANCISCO – Geoff Ogilvy recalls playing in the Taiheiyo Masters in Japan when he noticed a swarm of photographers and fans descending over a hill, scrambling for the best view.
“It was a Tiger pack,” Ogilvy said.
He turned to his playing partner, Brendan Jones of Australia, a regular on the Japan Golf Tour, and asked, “Who’s that?”
“It’s the kid,” Jones replied.
He wasn’t kidding.
Ryo Ishikawa was only 16 at the time, already a star. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he became the youngest player to win a tournament that carried official world ranking points. Having since turned professional, the Japanese sensation has four victories over the last calendar year, more than anyone else on his International team at the Presidents Cup.
“I think Ryo is one of the most exciting players in the world today,” Ernie Els said.
He is used to having “the youngest” attached to just about everything he does, and this week is no different. Ishikawa, who recently turned 18, is the youngest ever to compete in the Presidents Cup.
The fast track continues Thursday when the Presidents Cup gets under way with six foursomes matches. The most compelling will be the fifth match: Ogilvy and Ishikawa against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker.
It was International captain Greg Norman’s idea to put Ogilvy, who has an 18-3 record in match play, with Ishikawa. U.S. captain Fred Couples decided to put Woods and Stricker into that match.
Ishikawa is up for the challenge, even while showing his deep respect.
“I know that for the U.S. team, Mr. Woods and Mr. Stricker, they are going to be basically the No. 1 team,” Ishikawa said through a translator. “And I’m very excited because of the fact that Mr. Couples picked Mr. Woods and Mr. Stricker to be our opponents. Obviously, this is going to be an important match.
“I feel that if we can win this one, maybe we can stop the American team from getting out of their rhythm.”
That’s the goal for everyone on the International team.
The first day of the Presidents Cup has rarely meant so much to one team. Memories are still fresh from two years ago at Royal Montreal, however, when the opening session ended without a single International victory.
The United States won five of six matches. The other was halved. The International team never seriously cut into the five-point deficit, and it turned out to be another U.S. victory.
The Americans lead the series 5-1-1, and the tale of the tape does not favor the International side at Harding Park.
- The Americans have never lost on home soil.
- The only International victory came 11 years ago in Australia, played late in the year when the U.S. team was not in form.
- Seven players on the International team have not won anywhere in the world this year.
How bleak is the outlook? Els figured the International team would consider it a victory Thursday if it can split the matches.
Then again, perhaps that can work in its favor.
“We normally come here with a very good team on paper, and it seems like this year, some of us haven’t played that great,” Els said. “We feel like we are underdogs, and I think we kind of want to prove something this week.”
Ishikawa is not one to get rattled.
He has had what seems like the entire Japanese nation following his entire move for so long, and the presence of photographers is nothing new. As for the stage, he played with Woods and Lee Westwood the first two days at the British Open, where he held his own against the world’s No. 1 player until a late fade that caused him to miss the cut, just like Woods.
About the only thing that spooked him Wednesday was meeting Michael Jordan, who is in official attire in his unofficial role as an honorary assistant for the American team.
“Mr. Jordan was really big, and I saw him from a far distance yesterday,” Ishikawa said. “So I was really excited to get to meet him today and to speak with him briefly.”
The Americans always look as though they are having a good time at the Presidents Cup, perhaps because they usually are winning. The extra dimension this week has been the appearance of Jordan – minus the trail of smoke coming from his cigar.
City officials saw a picture of him in the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday smoking his stogie, and asked the tour to remind Jordan that smoking is banned at Harding Park, even for an NBA icon.
“I think he’s a team motivator,” Zach Johnson said. “You talk about the best basketball player of all time, but you’re also talking about one of the best team players of all time. When you add that ingredient into it, I just think it’s a positive.”
All that matters is points on the board, which is unpredictable until the matches get under way.
The U.S. team looks like the favorite on paper. It has the top three players in the world – Woods, Phil Mickelson and Stricker – and five of the top nine. It has seven major champions. Eight of its players have won in the last five months.
Paper never matters in this format – not the credentials, not the pairings.
“There’s no real equation that you’re going to put on paper that’s going to work,” Vijay Singh said. “You just have to go out there and play good golf, and I think that’s what the guys are geared up for. And hopefully, the golf is going to be a little bit more favorable to us this time.”