AKRON, Ohio – Ryo Ishikawa amazed even his peers in a charity-driven sport when he pledged in March to donate his entire earnings on the golf course to the tsunami relief fund in his native Japan.
He could double the donation Sunday in a World Golf Championship that is surprising even him.
Coming off a missed cut in Japan, never better than 20th in stroke play in America, the 19-year-old sensation made six birdies and twice escaped trouble in the trees Saturday for a 6-under 64 that put him in the final group and only one shot behind Adam Scott in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Along with a $1.4 million payoff, Ishikawa could become the youngest winner of a PGA Tour event in 100 years.
“I think it’s a little too early to think about winning this whole thing as of now,” Ishikawa said. “But I do feel that I was able to play at a pretty good level, a pretty high level today. Actually, I’m a little surprised of how I performed out there.”
Scott turned his fortunes around when he decided to stick with what was working, and switched to a fade off the tee. He poured in four birdies on the back nine for a 4-under 66, giving the 31-year-old Australian a shot at his first World Golf Championship.
Scott was at 12-under 198, the lowest 54-hole score at Firestone in 10 years. He will play in the last group with Ishikawa. In front of them will be Jason Day, whose 66 put him one shot behind. Day and Scott tied for second in the Masters earlier this year.
About the only thing Tiger Woods can now get out of this week are four rounds and some points to help him qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs at the end of the month. Woods, a seven-time winner at Firestone who hasn’t played in nearly three months, struggled again with his putting and shot 72. He was 13 shots behind in a tie for 38th in the 76-man field.
“I’ve just got to put together a good round and let it build,” Woods said.
Scott in the lead should be compelling enough, especially with Woods back to golf. It was only two weeks ago when Woods announced he had fired his caddie, Steve Williams, and Scott then hired him on a full-time basis.
But that’s become old news because of one of the youngest players in the field.
Ishikawa might be the only other player in golf to appreciate what it’s like to get attention like Woods. He has been a star in Japan since he won his first tournament as a 15-year-old amateur, and his 10 wins on the Japan Golf Tour include shooting a 58 in the final round to win The Crowns.
He has earned so much respect from his peers that Scott, even though he was leading, was not the least bit bothered to spend most of his interview talking about the kid once known as the “Shy Prince.”
“I first saw him in Japan when he was 15, and he had already won an event over there. I mean, this kid is really amazing,” Scott said. “I think this week is really big for him. It’s great that he’s playing well over here probably for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, first time he’s really challenging at a world event.
“He’s only 19. He’s got everything in front of him.”
Ishikawa doesn’t get much attention in these parts because he has struggled in America, with only one top 10 in 2010 when Ishikawa reached the third round of the Match Play Championship. This is his 22nd tournament in America, and he started feeling comfortable only when he tied for 20th at the Masters this year.
The spotlight? He’s been coping with that for a long time.
He gets the kind of media coverage in Japan that Woods gets around the world. It’s not unusual to see Ishikawa sit in a folding chair after every round to accommodate dozens of Japanese media.
Now comes the hard part.
A win would make him the youngest winner of a PGA Tour event since John McDermott at the 1911 U.S. Open at 19, who was one week younger than Ishikawa.
As for the money? He already has donated about $740,000 this year from his earnings, which include a pair of runner-up finishes in Japan. Along with his money pledges for making birdies and eagles, the total donation is pushing $1 million.
“There are people that have no homes right now, and we actually don’t know how long it’s going to take for Japan to recover,” Ishikawa said through a translator. “So I would just like to give my support to Japan.”
Ishikawa opened with three birdies on the front nine and never eased back, making enough escapes out of the trees and a few more birdies. It was his best round since he opened with a 65 at Doral, right after he learned of the tsunami.
His expectations are limited for Sunday.
“I think the golf I’m playing now is unstable in a sense,” Ishikawa said, noting he went from a runner-up finish to qualify for this event to a missed cut. “And so considering that, I’m not really sure as to how I will perform tomorrow, to be honest with you.”
Day took an early lead with an eagle on the par-5 second hole, gave it back with consecutive bogeys to start the back nine and finished with a flourish, three birdies over his last five holes for a 66.
It wasn’t enough to put Day in the final group with Scott. They played together in the final round of the Masters, and both looked as though they might win until Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes for a two-shot victory.
“He really impressed me at Augusta on Sunday when I think back to how he played,” Scott said.
The third round was played early to avoid a forecast of thunderstorms. Sunday returns to regular twosomes, and Scott doesn’t expect a duel at the top. If conditions stay dry, and the fairways get faster, it puts a premium on just about everything. Nine players were within five shots of the lead.
PGA Tour rookie Keegan Bradley had a 68 and was two shots behind, along with Martin Laird (67). The group another shot behind included world No. 1 Luke Donald, who had a 64 despite a bogey on the last hole, and Rickie Fowler, who holed out from the fairway for eagle for the second straight day. He needed that for a 69, although he is still only three shots behind as he goes for his first win.
Woods opened with a bogey that started with shots to the right and left of the fairway, and he didn’t hit a single fairway on the front nine. He attributed that to hitting the ball straighter, which is something he’s not used to doing.