SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The first crush of photographers chased after Tiger Woods on his way to the practice range in his first tournament back from knee surgery. Then came another commotion of cameras.
This was for Ryo Ishikawa, who was nothing more than an alternate in the Match Play Championship.
Woods and Ishikawa met for the first time that morning in February 2009. They first played together later that summer at Turnberry, where there Japanese teen idol was three shots better than golf’s superpower, although both wound up missing the cut. At the Presidents Cup, the only two matches the 18-year-old Ishikawa lost were to Woods and Steve Stricker.
A few months ago, Woods paused from a session on the range at the TPC Sawgrass when Ishikawa’s name came up.
“People don’t have any idea how good this kid is,” he said. “He’s got what it takes.”
Outside Japan, not many people would have reason to know.
Ishikawa won the money title last year on the Japan Golf Tour, about five months before he graduated high school. The first of his seven victories in Japan came when he was a 15-year-old amateur, making him the youngest to win on a sanctioned tour. And he made more history in May by closing with a 58 to win The Crowns tournament.
Perhaps even more remarkable is that he has achieved all this under a microscope only Woods can appreciate.
Geoff Ogilvy was playing in the Taiheiyo Masters in late 2007 when he saw a mass of media moving across the putting green, holding cameras overhead while walking backward, scrambling for position.
“It was way over and above what Tiger ever has had following him across a putting green,” Ogilvy said. “I asked one of the Australian guys who plays in Japan, ‘Who’s this guy?’ And he said, ‘This is the kid who’s going to save the Japanese tour.’ This guy was mega a long time before anyone knew him.”
Ishikawa was known then as “Hanikami Oji,” which translates to the “Bashful Prince.”
The trick now is to conquer beyond his borders. This will be the measure of greatness, and Ishikawa already is aware of this.
Over the last three years, he has made nearly a dozen trips from his home in Saitama to visit whom he considers Japan’s greatest player, Jumbo Ozaki, who won 113 times in his career. Only one of those wins, the New Zealand PGA, was outside Japan.
“I practice in front of him,” said Ishikawa, speaking in English until it becomes too much of a burden. “He gave great advice.”
Some of that is instruction. Ozaki played baseball before taking up golf, and he has had Ishikawa hit a baseball off the tee to help him generate more power with his golf swing. Ishikawa showed enough power in the third round of the U.S. Open when he hit a driver on the par-4 fourth hole to about 15 feet from the pin.
The other advice pertains to his future.
Ishikawa has asked Ozaki about his reputation for never winning on the biggest stage.
“He said, ‘I couldn’t play well in international tournaments,’ but he expects me to show a good performance outside Japan,” Ishikawa said through his agent, Jumpei Kaneko. “He told me he wanted me to show a good performance in the United States.”
Progress has been slow.
In his first year playing in America, Ishikawa made only two cuts in five starts, and his best was a tie for 56th in the PGA Championship. This year, he advanced to the third round of the Match Play Championship, winning his opening match with a shot that shows why this kid is worth watching. He birdied his last three holes to beat Michael Sim of Australia, including a fairway bunker shot to 2 feet on the 17th.
He was tied for second after the second round of the U.S. Open until he stumbled to a 75 to fall out of contention. He had his best finish in a major last month at St. Andrews when he tied for 27th in the British Open.
His next opportunity starts Thursday at Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship.
Ishikawa has been dealing with larger-than-life expectations since he was 15. He speaks after each round, and knows most in the media by name. After opening with a 71 at Firestone, he pulled up a white chair and sat in the middle of 15 reporters, patiently taking all their questions until there was nothing left to ask. He does this after every round.
For someone with so much star power – in a newspaper poll in January he was voted Japan’s second-most popular athlete behind Ichiro Suzuki – Ishikawa has an amazing sense of responsibility.
“Great player, great kid, great future,” said Camilo Villegas, who played with Ishikawa three years ago in Japan.
Ishikawa is trying to speak English, believing it will make him feel more comfortable around the world, and feeling more comfortable can only translate to better golf. That’s what helped make Se Ri Pak such a star on the LPGA Tour. Perhaps that’s what held back Ozaki.
He no longer goes by “Bashful Prince,” for there is nothing bashful about a kid who has a cartoon image of his face stamped on his golf balls, who is not afraid to dress in the brightest shades of red, orange, green or his Smurf-blue outfit at Pebble Beach.
Ishikawa gave up on trying to get Americans to properly pronounce his first name. It’s a bit of a linguistic twister on this side of the Pacific: “Yo,” but said at blurring speed. Instead, he goes by “Rio” in the States. More important is that Americans remember his golf.