PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – If Ryo Ishikawa needed any reassurance about his emerging golf game, he got it from none other than eight-time major winner Tom Watson.
Paired with Watson in the second round Friday, the two stood in the scorer’s trailer after coming off the 18th green at Pebble Beach and shared some friendly words. Watson reached out for a handshake and wished the 18-year-old Japanese star well.
“Tom said to me that I will have a good future,” Ishikawa said.
The stylish Ishikawa, with bright-colored clothes, a consistent putter and youthful acne on his cheery face, is right in the hunt in his U.S. Open debut. Ishikawa followed his 1-under opening-round Thursday by shooting an even-par 71 Friday for an impressive two-day score of 141.
Now, Ishikawa wants to ride that momentum right into a strong weekend. He has adjusted his shots for a tough course along the Pacific Coast he insists is nothing like the oceanside links he plays back home.
Ishikawa sported all pink Thursday – a pink zip-up sweater, pink slacks and pink shoes. On Friday, he toned it down a tad with a cherry-red zip-up sweater and off-white pants.
He is making the right kind of splash at Pebble, where even some of the best golfers in this bunch are splashing balls into the ocean or hitting off cliffs into the rocks or beach below. Davis Love III did it on the 18th tee Friday, playing in the group in front of Ishikawa.
Ishikawa birdied the par-3, 208-yard 17th that has been creating all kinds of problems for others in the field so far.
“I like it. I like 17,” Ishikawa said with a smile speaking perfect English, though he did receive help from interpreter Jumpei Kaneko for other responses. “I hit a 4-iron today and I couldn’t see where the ball landed after the first bounce. It was just a lucky bounce. The putting was very straight. Straight, right in, so yesterday and today I was very lucky.”
There’s a little more to his game than just luck.
Ishikawa turned pro in 2007 and has won seven titles on the Japan Tour. At The Crowns event last month in Togo, Japan, he shot a 12-under 58 for the lowest score ever on a major tour.
He made 12 birdies in a bogey-free round on the 6,545-yard Nagoya Golf Club course. Ishikawa surprised even himself with that one.
Now, everybody else is catching on to this kid’s potential. A newcomer no more.
“Ryo played fantastically,” said Rory McIlroy, also in Ishikawa’s Friday threesome. “He made a lot of putts. If he can keep his short game the way it is, I can definitely see him competing this weekend.”
With a media contingent at the Open not unlike the large groups covering big-name major leaguers such as Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Matsui, Ishikawa exhibits the poise of someone well beyond his years.
Does he feel pressure on his sport’s big stage?
His motto is more about pushing himself to be the best he can be, rather than creating huge expectations this early in his career – or letting outside distractions derail his goals.
“I don’t know if it’s the right word, but my feeling is go for it,” Ishikawa said. “So, challenging is something to me, and especially in the tournaments outside Japan, it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t challenge things.”
After struggling with his short game during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am here in February, Ishikawa went back to Japan and vowed to be better on Pebble’s unforgiving greens when he returned.
“And this week I’m doing great on putting,” he said.
Before he departed Friday, Ishikawa quickly signed a ball and handed it to Watson’s son and caddie, Michael.
“I really appreciate it,” Michael Watson said, reaching out his hand. “Keep up the good play.”
It’s hard not to like Ishikawa. He’s fresh, real.
Morito Matsuda and his wife, Hisae, are visiting Northern California from Tokyo. Their son lives in San Francisco, so they paired a visit to the Bay Area with watching a day of golf.
The couple were thrilled to get to see Ishikawa’s success on 17.
“He’s a good boy, only 18,” Morito Matsuda said. “We’re very excited. We got up at 3:30 a.m. to get here from San Francisco so we could see him practice – and he was on the driving range right next to Tiger Woods.”
Ishikawa said he hears and appreciates all the Japanese fans in the gallery and their cheers of “gambatte!”– which translates to “Go for it!” or “Try your best!”
“He’s extraordinary,” Ernie Els said. “He played in the Presidents Cup last year, and I really got to know him well there. He’s a great kid. It’s amazing that he’s only 18. He already shot 58 this year. Just think about it, shooting 58 in the Tour over there in Japan at 18, it’s phenomenal. He’s a really good player, great kid. There’s a lot of youngsters coming through. I think what Tiger has done, a lot of these kids want to do what he’s done, so they come out early and they’re aggressive and they’re confident.”
Ishikawa’s plan: keep it up for another two days.
“I hope I can play more aggressive tomorrow and the next two days,” he said. “I hope I can focus on my golf, just on my golf.”
It’s worked so far.