If all goes as planned, Ryo Ishikawa will take up full membership on the PGA Tour in 2013, which he called “one of the goals for the year” on Tuesday at this week’s Transitions Championship.
The Japanese superstar birdied three of his last four holes at the Puerto Rico Open and came close to his first victory on the American circuit — he has nine on the Japan Tour, earning his first when he was only 15 — but George McNeill birdied the last three at Trump International to beat the 20-year-old by two shots.
Ryo had to settle with runner-up honors, eclipsing his previous top finish, T4 at the 2011 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, on the PGA Tour, but it didn’t come without more than a few consolation prizes.
“Sunday was a big day for us (the Japanese),” said Ryo, referring to the one-year anniversary of the devastating tsunami in his native Japan. “I played well on Sunday, but George was just simply better than me.”
The $378,000 2nd-place check gave him $582,471 in winnings so far in 2012 to put him over the required amount needed for special temporary membership, which is granted to players who rake in more than No. 150 on the previous year’s money list. There’s a 60-day window for players who qualify to become a Special Temporary Member. He told reporters on Sunday, “I’m still thinking. I need some time to think about it, but that’s the direction I’ll be aiming for.”
(Sounds like that was the company line because he seemed pretty sure on Tuesday, but maybe things were lost in the language barrier — though Ryo’s English is quite good.) The 20-year-old golfer has already started the process. His manager Atsushi Itaya told me on Wednesday that they had filled out and signed the required paperwork and given it to the Tour a few days ago. (I asked him three times to make sure nothing was being lost in translation because of the language barrier.) However, a Tour media official says it isn’t official yet — at least it hasn’t been processed through the Rules & Competition department. The whole thing is more of a formality than anything, though. And I figure hearing it from Ryo and his manager has to mean something.
Basically, once Ryo “officially” becomes a STM, he gets unlimited sponsor’s exemptions. Non-members are limited to seven.
The Puerto Rico Open was Ryo’s fifth start in the U.S. in 2012. He accepted an invitation to try and break through the top 50 to earn a spot in the Masters. Earlier last week, Augusta National unexpectedly extended a special invite to him (which raised some eyebrows, but as we know, the green coats do as the green coats wish). Well, Ryo certainly living up to his billing with his strong play in Puerto Rico, which boosted him to No. 47 in the world rankings released on Monday (top 50 in the OGWR after Bay Hill secure trips to Augusta).
“I don’t feel any pressure,” said Ryo when asked if he felt extra scrutiny due to the rare invite he was granted from ANGC . “Asian golf is growing right now. I think Japanese golf is a little bit behind (the rest of Asia), so we’re going to try better and grow Japanese golf.
“This year I’m the only professional golfer from Japan (in the Masters). There’s one amateur player, Hideki Matsuyama, who will be playing, too. Only two players from Japan will be represented at the Masters. I think there are more from Korea. I think Japan is behind Korea and it’s another Asian country. So the more, the better.”
Now, locking up his 2013 PGA Tour card has become his main focus. He’s nearly set, with already $582,471 in earnings, currently. As a Special Temporary Member, he has to finish in the top 125 on this year’s money list (like any other player trying to keep their cards, unless otherwise exempt). Last year No. 125 (DJ Trahan) banked $668,166 (it doesn’t vary that much usually, except there was a large discrepancy between 2011 and 2010).
Ishikawa had already accepted sponsor’s invitations for this week’s Transitions Championship, along with next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. (He hasn’t exceeded the max 7 sponsor’s exemptions yet, so his STM would only kick in when he figures out his summer schedule and how much he wants to play in the U.S. — or rather, if he needs to pad his PGA Tour earnings.) Then, he’ll play the Masters the first week of April before returning to make a few starts on the Japan Tour. His schedule for the rest of the year depends on his results in his next three starts.
He said on Tuesday he hopes to play well enough to guarantee a 2013 PGA Tour card.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Ryo on Tuesday when I asked if earning STM and his card had been a goal entering the season. “I’m going to try to get my card for next year and I’ll play here, next week and then the Masters, and then hopefully I’ll be clear.”
While he currently doesn’t have a home base in the U.S., he hopefully will next year. Right now, he’s trying to figure out “where’s the greatest place for golf to live.” He likes Florida — perhaps Tampa or Orlando or Palm Beach (he laughed enthusiastically when I asked him about Jupiter). He also says he hears Los Angeles is “fine,” but he didn’t sound sold. The West Coast would make the more sense than Florida just because it’d be easier for him to travel to Asia if he’s splitting time between two tours.
I bet Tiger Woods wouldn’t mind having Ryo as a neighbor in Jupiter, Florida. The 14-time major champ hasn’t been shy about his fondness and partiality for the young Japanese star’s game on multiple occasions.
“For me personally, I would go watch Ryo,” said Woods at the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational when asked if a particular young player had caught his attention. “I like how he plays. I like how he goes about his business. Just his demeanor on the golf course, as well, but I really like his putting stroke. It’s a pretty pure stroke. But just the way he plays — I think how he manages himself around the golf course is pretty good for a person (his age).”
For now, Ryo — whom the Japanese endearingly call “The Bashful Prince” — is focused on playing his best at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course.
“I’m very comfortable right now,” he said on Tuesday before he met with the Japanese media in “The Chair” (he’s provided one every time he fields questions from them and usually he’s surrounded and practically swallowed by the few dozen reporter-types). “It’s going to be great. On Thursday and Friday I’m playing with Bud Cauley and Tom Lewis. Those two are very good players.”
Now that threesome, a representation of golf’s thriving youth movement, will be the one to follow. With Ryo, 20, and Lewis, 21, Cauley, 22 (on Friday), will be the old man of the group.
*Update: PGA Tour official said Ryo hasn’t officially filed papers for Special Temporary Membership yet. He paid $50 non-member fee for the Transitions Championship. The STM doesn’t become an issue until he uses up seven sponsor’s exemptions. This week is his fifth and next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational will be his sixth.
(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)