Aug
6
2011
Ryo Rises Near Top of Leaderboard
By Stephanie Wei under WGC

Ryo: Finally, a glimpse into the Eastern phenom

Ryo Ishikawa fired an impressive six-under 64 to ascend to a tied for second at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Prior to Ryo’s third-round press conference, we (the American media and golf fans) didn’t know much about the 19-year-old star from Japan.

Well, we knew he was very generous when he pledged to donate all of his earnings in 2011, along with $1,200 for every birdie he makes, to help the survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated his home country’s coast. (So far, that totals $927,375.) We also knew he’d won ten times on the Japan Golf Tour (nine official events, one unofficial). He also fired a 58, the lowest ever on any major golf tour, in the final round of The Crowns last May. And we knew he has a really good golf swing that Tiger Woods often praises. Oh, and of course, he sports fashionable, bright-colored outfits.

Apart from the numerous achievements he’s accomplished on the golf course, Ryo Ishikawa was a mystery. What was he like as a person? Was he funny? Was he shy? What’s it like for him to play in America?

No idea.

Today, just in roughly 20 minutes, even though he spoke through a translator, I gleaned that Ryo is very charming, well-spoken, pretty candid and has a good sense of humor, not to mention incredibly mature for a 19-year-old.

“This kid is really amazing,” said Adam Scott, 31, who leads Ishikawa by one shot. “I think this week is really big for him. It’s great that he’s playing well over here, probably for the first time. His game has progressed really nicely, it seems, and I think we should all just keep out of his way, and just let him mature.

“He’s got everything in front of him. It’s pretty impressive. He’s got a very mature game, too, with that, but as he grows and gets stronger and smarter about how to play the game, he could be a world beater, or he already kind of is.”

I’d seen him countless times in The Chair — after he finishes each round, he sits in a chair and about 20 members of the Japanese media crowd around him. It’s quite the scene, which never ceases to amuse me and I always take a picture. It looks something like this (photo from this year’s Masters, not of Ryo, but very well could be):

Where's Ryo? Sitting in The Chair.

Ishikawa is in the best position of his career at a PGA Tour-sanctioned event (22 starts) after 54 holes. His previous best following the third round was T7 at the ’10 US Open, where he eventually finished T33 after posting 80 on the final day.

In other words, he hasn’t had much success in the States, and thus he hasn’t been summoned to the interview room (at least at any tournament I’ve been to — I don’t recall he’s been brought into the interview room, but he probably has at some point?). In 22 starts, Ryo has missed 10 cuts. His best finishes in the US were T9 at the ’10 WGC-Accenture Match Play and T20 at this year’s Masters. Which actually helped his confidence and made him feel more comfortable playing in the States.

At the start of the week, some (most notably, 08 Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger) debated the validity of the Official World Golf Ranking system (for the 78,923th time) on Twitter and how many points are awarded to the Asian tours. The other week, Ryo finished second to move into the top 50 in the world rankings, earning him the last spot in the field this week. In turn, American Webb Simpson didn’t get in by a fraction of a point.

I think Ryo’s performance speaks for itself.

And we learned he has struggled feeling comfortable playing in the States. We don’t think about the challenges he faces — particularly the cultural and language barriers — and must overcome along with competing in the tournament.

“I’ve had challenges at a couple of tournaments here in the States and overseas,” said Ryo through an interpreter. “For me it was a little bit hard to control the mental side of the game and they were difficult times for me. But since the Masters when I was able to finish 20th, I think from then on it has started to become fun, actually fun to play here in the States.”

He also gave insight as to what it’s like for him as an “outsider,” so to speak.

“You see some of the Japanese fans out there cheering for me, but you feel that sense of loneliness playing out there being away from where you were born or where you’ve been raised,” he said. “But I look at it as the people back in Japan are watching me as I play out there on the field.”

That makes complete sense. What’s more impressive is how he deals with the constant scrutiny. Of all the players in the world, perhaps only Ryo can relate to what it’s like to be Tiger Woods and live in a fish bowl.

“I feel like he’s even more under the microscope,” said Scott. “He’s probably one of their biggest sportsmen up with some of the baseballers, and just even what goes on outside here on the chair. I can’t imagine. He handles it so well.

“I think he is really, genuinely a great person, and he handles himself so well. He’s been doing that stuff for four years already. Most people would have gone nuts.”

Whether or not he closes the deal on Sunday at Firestone, Ishikawa obviously has a long and brilliant career ahead of him. Plus he’s likeable and someone you want to see do well.

“He should be proud of himself, and Japan should be really proud of him,” said Scott. Though he was referring to Ryo’s generosity to the tsunami relief, it applies as a person and golfer, too.

This week Ishikawa showed up with a new haircut and apparently everyone has taken notice — even Tiger Woods. When Ryo said hello to Tiger on the practice green, Tiger responded like the others, asking, “Why did you cut your hair?”

Well?

Smiling, he said in English, “Too hot here. Too hot.”

(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)