Ishikawa, Els an obvious pairing for Internationals

Ryo Ishikawa listens as Ernie Els talks him around Royal Melbourne in a Presidents Cup practice session.

Ryo Ishikawa listens as Ernie Els talks him around Royal Melbourne in a Presidents Cup practice session.

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MELBOURNE, Australia – On the eve of the ninth Presidents Cup, Greg Norman knows better than anyone that his International team, a victor in this lopsided affair only one time, is in dire need of a changing tide. Norman, assigned to trot out his first tandem to build momentum for the home side in opening-day foursomes play, the most difficult team format, decided to go with The Kid. And then he paired him with the most experienced man on his squad. 

And so it is that Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, 20, the last player to arrive to the Presidents Cup and a youngster with only 18 holes of practice under his belt at exacting Royal Melbourne, will join with South African Ernie Els, a man more than twice his age who happens to own the course record (60) there.

At first blush, it seems a rather obvious, and one-sided, marriage. “Ernie has all the experience,” International team member Charl Schwartzel said when he saw the pairing. “That was the obvious choice; Ernie is so easy to play with.”

Els, having played 30 Presidents Cup matches (16-12-2), spent much of Wednesday tutoring young Ishikawa around the storied Alister MacKenzie Sandbelt gem, showing him specific lines off the tee and helping to explain the nuances of the rolling greens and their sharply-edged, roll-away features. As much as he loves to drive it long, Ishikawa quickly learned this track is about angles, iron play and putting. There’s no questioning that Els holds the edge in experience. Yet contributions from this twosome come Thursday may not be as one-sided as one might think. 

“What will Ernie do for Ryo? I think this is as much about what Ryo will do for Ernie,” said International assistant captain Frank Nobilo. “I think Ernie sees something in Ryo that he saw in himself, when he was in his 20s, when he was a star. I think what Greg saw there (in that pairing) . . . Royal Melbourne is such an intricate golf course. It’s difficult to learn. What Ryo brought to the team two years ago, sometimes that can help the older, more experienced player.”

Ishikawa competed in Japan last week, tying for eighth at the Taiheiyo Masters. He had plans to travel to Australia on Monday, but his flight was delayed, costing him a day as he crossed from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Adelaide, Australia. He didn’t get to Melbourne until Tuesday afternoon, after the team had practiced. So there was Ishikawa early Wednesday, seeing Royal Melbourne in all its glory for the very first time. He spent time with Els, and Norman walked a few holes with him before he played two final holes alongside K.J. Choi. Talk about a crash course. Ishikawa would have a better chance learning calculus in a single afternoon. 

So the idea then is to let Ishikawa lean heavily on Els, the only man who has represented the Internationals in every single Presidents Cup. Els knows more than anyone the pain that the Rest of the World has experienced in taking on, and usually falling to, their friendly foes from the United States. One good twist for the Internationals: The matches have returned to Royal Melbourne, where in 1998, the Internationals pasted their visitors, 20 1/2 - 11 1/2. The team was paced by a Japanese player, Shigeki Maruyama, who went 5-0. In essence, that match was over before the players ever got to Sunday singles. 

“We got smoked,” U.S. captain Fred Couples, who played on that U.S. side, said in Wednesday afternoon’s Opening Ceremony. 

Ishikawa, who turned 20 only two months ago, has been playing in Japan the last couple months after a season that was disappointing by his standards. In nine stroke-play starts on the PGA Tour, he had only one solid showing, that being a T-4 at the Bridgestone Invitational in August. He missed the cut the following week at the PGA Championship in Atlanta, and then went home to Japan, where he has made 10 starts this autumn and has posted five top-10 finishes. 

Norman has a different task than the one Couples faces. Whereas the latter has a team made up from players from a single country, Norman has players from three continents. Whereas the U.S. players wear an American flag on their sleeves, and share one common language, the Internationals play under several flags, and some players require interpreters to communicate in English. Norman has five Aussies, three South Koreans, three South Africans … and one young man, the youngest of them all, wearing the flag of Japan on the side of his Presidents Cup-issued painter’s cap. Nobody doubts the kid’s rich talents. Long after several of his teammates had left the press center late Wednesday, Ishikawa once again stood alone, surrounded by a large pack of Asian reporters. Whenever he plays, it’s a common site.

“He’s a rock star in Japan,” said Nobilo. “He is such a humble kid. . . . Ryo is standing up for the entire Japanese Tour. He has really good shoulders for a young man. And he can flat out play.” 

Ishikawa went 3-2 in his Presidents Cup debut two years ago at Harding Park. He greatly impressed his teammates, even if he still felt as if he was an outsider on the team. He says it’s different this time – even if he’s still the only player calling his captain “Mr. Norman.”

“I feel like compared to last year (2009), I felt like I was not one of them, but this year, I feel like I’m one of them,” Ishikawa said through an interpreter. 

He’ll need to contribute points, too, if the Internationals hope to change their losing ways (1-6-1) in this series. Els’ play will be pivotal as well. The Kid and the Veteran can only deliver a single point between them on Thursday, but it could be a significant one, possibly the first one, helping the home side to secure an early lead and some early momentum. 

“Ernie loves the golf course,” said Nobilo, “and sometimes a golf course can bring something out. You see what Augusta National always does for Freddie (Couples) every time he comes back. So the golf course is doing that for Ernie. 

“And the youth of Ishikawa? It makes a really good blend.”

The Internationals hope that rings true.

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