JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Ryo Ishikawa first made people take notice because of his golf. He won his first Japan Golf Tour event as a 15-year-old amateur, won the money title at 17 and last year became the first player to shoot 58 on a major tour.
His latest eye-opening feat brought attention to his heart.
Wanting to do his part to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated his native Japan, Ishikawa decided to donate his entire tournament earnings this year – plus a bonus for every birdie he makes – toward relief efforts.
“I don’t view this as pressure to perform, but it will instead be extra motivation for me,” Ishikawa said Friday in an email to The Associated Press. “I always believe in myself, but because I am playing for the people of Japan, I feel like I will be playing with a greater purpose this year.”
Ishikawa, who at 19 already has nine wins on the Japan Golf Tour, was third on Japan’s money list last year with just over $1.82 million.
He also has pledged about $1,200 (100,000 yen) for every birdie. He led the Japanese tour last year with 341 birdies, which would amount to over $400,000.
Even in a sport driven by charity, Ishikawa’s generosity caught the attention of his colleagues.
“It’s the most unbelievable gesture ever, isn’t it?” Geoff Ogilvy said Friday. “I saw it fly past last night on Twitter and I thought, ‘Ah, that’s nice.’ About five minutes later I said, ‘Hang on a minute. All his prize money?’ Which is ridiculous for anybody, but for someone who’s 19 to have that level of thought for others … it’s amazing.”
Ishikawa was playing the Cadillac Championship at Doral on March 11 when he awoke to news of the earthquake and tsunami, and saw horrific images of the destruction. He finished off a 65 in the first round, then struggled the rest of the week.
He missed the cut at the Transitions Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, then headed to Augusta, Ga., this week to meet up with his family and get ready for the Masters. Ishikawa is from Saitama, about 300 miles away from the area hardest hit by the tsunami.
Ishikawa said he has spent most of his money on making life easier for himself, from building a short-game practice facility near his house to buying fitness equipment.
“I feel fortunate to be in a position to afford such things, but I know that my success is a result of the support of so many people,” he said in the email. “While golf is my profession, and I want to have a long and successful career, there are things that are more important. And the people of Japan are dealing with life and death issues as a result of the earthquake and tsunami.
“I feel it is my turn to give back in whatever way I can to support the people who have been so supportive of me.”
Known earlier in his career as “Bashful Prince,” Ishikawa has become the face of golf in Japan. He played 34 times last year, including one stretch of 20 tournaments in 22 weeks, because the tour and sponsors lean so heavily on him.
Ogilvy is among those who understand the level of attention Ishikawa generates in Japan. He was playing the Taheiyo Masters toward the end of 2007 when he saw a horde of photographers rushing across the practice green, cameras over their heads to snap pictures. Ogilvy asked who they were following and was told, “This is the kid who’s going to save the Japanese Tour.”
“He’s probably close to being the most famous sportsman in Japan,” Ogilvy said. “He’s the Tiger Woods of Japan. And a lot of people will see what he’s done. It’s another sign of how grown up he is.”
Ishikawa played for the International team in the Presidents Cup two years ago in San Francisco. He went 3-2, with the two losses coming against the undefeated tandem of Woods and Steve Stricker.
“I spent a week with him at the Presidents Cup,” Ogilvy said. “You don’t learn a person in a week. But it doesn’t surprise me. You spend time with him and realize that he’s a good guy. This isn’t a PR thing. He must feel very strongly about his country.”
Word of his gesture began to filter through the golf industry Thursday night and Friday.
“Ryo’s unselfish pledge to donate all his worldwide prize money this year … is an indication of the maturity this 19-year-old has demonstrated on and off the golf course since he burst onto the international golf stage,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.
“That’s unbelievable. I haven’t heard of anybody doing that,” Stricker said from the Houston Open. “It’s a great testament to what kind of kid he is. It obviously touches him pretty deeply.”
“It warmed my heart that he is the type of character we thought he was, and he continues to display it,” said Gerald Goodman, who offered Ishikawa his first PGA Tour exemption two years ago at the Transitions Championship. “Athletes from Japan are rallying to help their country. But to give it all? That’s something.”
The hardest part for Ishikawa was being patient in deciding what he should do. Jumbo Ozaki, who is to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May, suggested that Japanese players donate 20 percent of their earnings.
Ishikawa decided to go even further.
“I wanted to help right away, but I discussed with my staff and family over the past three weeks and came up with the idea,” Ishikawa said. “A number of other Japanese athletes announced their support right away, and I felt a bit of pressure of jump in quickly. But I wanted to take the time to figure out how I could help best.
“I believed right away that it was the right thing to do and am very motivated to not only raise money for the people of Japan, but hopefully also encourage them as the country recovers.”