Funny, though “the chair” is no longer used, Ryo Ishikawa looks more comfortable than ever. Which is a beautiful thing if you admire a maturation process played out amid the most intense pressure one can imagine.
Some golfers arrive at the threshold of pro golf with great hype and expectations? Forget that. Ishikawa, since he was 16, has carried a nation’s hopes upon his shoulders.
Now 22, those hopes are still there, too.
“He doesn’t talk about it and I don’t ask about it,” said Ishikawa’s caddie, Simon Clarke of Australia. “It’s not something you want to be brought to the surface. I’m sure he does (feel the pressure), because he knows the expectations. But he handles it well, better than I thought he would.”
Clarke has served up a classic understatement. Fact is, Ishikawa is a consummate gentleman, unfailingly cooperative, mature beyond his years, and to watch him after each and every PGA Tour round is to marvel at how much patience one person can extend.
Rarely has a nickname fit quite like Ishikawa’s, respectfully called “The Bashful Prince” by members of the Japanese media, whose daily commitment to the young man’s exploits somehow never get him flustered. Be the day’s score 63 or 83, Ishikawa diligently faces the media, which sometimes gets 30 to 45 minutes of his time.
And mind you, it’s been this way . . . well, forever it seems.
“I was stationed (with the Navy) in Hawaii and got to play with Ryo in the Pearl Open (in February of 2008),” said Billy Hurley. “I think we were like the featured pairing.”
Hurley, then 25, couldn’t believe what followed the 16-year-old kid around the golf course that day. “There were like 30 cameras. It sounded like a flock of birds after every swing, all the (camera) shutters.”
Having crossed paths several times since, Hurley and Ishikawa were paired together in Round 3 of the Vegas tournament and again the “flock of birds” could be heard. Now 31, Hurley agreed that few PGA Tour members play with as much constant pressure on them as Ishikawa.
“But he handles it so well,” Hurley said.
Some might suggest that “the chair” helped. One would be brought out so the teenager could sit and be comfortable for his long sit in front of Japanese reporters, both print and electric. It always made for great fodder with American reporters who felt blessed to get a minute of Tiger Woods’ time and while they may be surprised to hear that “the chair” is no longer used, Ishikawa has introduced a new wrinkle. Having worked hard at his English, he will handle as best he can questions from American writers, an effort for which he should be commended.
Ishikawa might brush aside the compliments, however. Having already played parts of six seasons on the PGA Tour, he feels a responsibility to embrace the American culture if he is to play over here. But at the same time, Ishikawa clearly he exemplifies the Japanese culture.
“He’s not just polite,” Clarke said. “He’s just a nice kid and comes from a nice family. I just like their culture. They have respect for their elders. (Ryo) pays attention to what everyone does and he’s got a lot of respect for people.”
If there’s a storyline that has blossomed early in this first wrap-around season, it could be the arrival of Ishikawa’s much-anticipated game. Since he won on the Japanese PGA Tour as an amateur teenager, much has been written and talked about regarding Ishikawa, but you always knew deep down that it would be impossible to live up to the hype. It was just too much, so when Ishikawa in 2013 failed to make the FedEx Cup playoffs in his first full season on the PGA Tour, the assumption was made that 21-year-old Hideki Matsuyama – he of the three wins in Japan and the Presidents Cup berth – had become the story in Japan.
Wrong. Ishikawa remains the rage and it’s fascinating to see the interaction between the Japanese media and the two young stars. While they are diligent in their coverage of Matsuyama, the reporters’ connection to Ishikawa remains uncanny. Matsuyama is quiet and seems rarely at ease, but Ishikawa? “He paints pictures with his words,” a reporter explained.
And of late, there have been nice pictures to paint.
“Definitely, a great start. I’ve played well the last two months,” Ishikawa said after finishing in a share of second behind Webb Simpson at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. “I have great confidence with my long game and I’m getting better with my short game. My game is good now.”
All things accepted as relative, because we are talking a cross-over from the Web.com Tour Finals and early-season action on the PGA Tour, but Ishikawa’s last five starts have produced an impressive linescore: 5th, T-7, T-8, T-21, and T-2 – a robust 47-under for 20 rounds, with 14 of them in the 60s.
Forced into the Web.com Tour Finals, Ishikawa handled the pressure brilliantly, and while it would be wise to give great credit to the maturity that is slowly seeping in, a pat on the back is owed Clarke. The veteran caddie joined Ishikawa for the Japan Open in October of 2012, they hit it off nicely, and worked five times early in 2013.
Then came some visa issues and Clarke didn’t rejoin Ishikawa until the RBC Canadian Open in July. By then, the young man’s game had struggled mightily, it was doubtful he’d be in the playoffs, and so Clarke set out to figure out why. A glance into Ishikawa’s bag prompted an explanation.
“I realized what his error was. I said, ‘You’ve got to put a third wedge in,’ “ Clarke said.
Crazy, with so many players in this day and age carrying four wedges, but Ishikawa had but two – a 51- and 59-degree.
“He kept trying to hit the 51 soft all the time and under pressure he just didn’t hit it. Those little 100-yard shots just didn’t make it.”
With a 54-degree added for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, Ishikawa finished joint 29th. Then he came in T-26 at the Wyndham. While it wasn’t enough to get him into the playoffs, it was more than enough to give him hope for the four-tournament series on Web.com Tour venues to try and earn his card back.
Ishikawa missed the cut the first week, then aced each of the next three tests. His efforts at the Frys.com Open (T-21) and in Vegas (T-2) have kept things going in a positive way as he prepares for this week’s HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
Matsuyama will also be there, but to suggestions that there is a rivalry between the two, Ishikawa smiles, then shakes his head no. In fact, “he gave me a lot of great energy and he has helped me a lot,” Ishikawa said. “I’m very happy for him.”
Just not as happy as the Japanese media seems to be with the return of Ishikawa’s game. Still so young, the “Bashful Prince” has already played in 17 major championships and nine WGCs; there have been 69 PGA Tour starts, six top 10s, and two seconds; and at each opportunity, the Japanese reporters have frantically chronicled his every swing and his every word.
True, the chair is no longer used, but his cooperation remains impeccable.
“He feels obligated to them,” Clarke explained. “Whether he knows he can’t (say no) or it’s part of his culture. He’s just great like that.”
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UIHLEIN THRIVES ABROAD, GIVES BACK: One of the best stories in American golf continues to play out overseas, where Peter Uihlein is chasing big prizes in the European Tour’s answer to the FedEx Cup playoffs. Sitting ninth in the Race To Dubai, Uihlein got into early contention at the BMW Masters in Shanghai before settling for joint fifth.
It was his third top-five finish in his last four starts.
Now 60th in the Official World Golf Ranking, the 24-year-old Uihlein began the year 385th, so clearly the road he chose – through the Challenge Tour and European Tour – has afforded him the chance to blossom. You don’t take on such an unconventional challenge without a high degree of character, but Uihlein demonstrated he has an abundance of that with a charitable effort during the recent Dunhill Links in St. Andrews.
Paired with rising Scottish standout Bradley Neil, Uihlein helped script an unforgettable week for the 17-year-old. First, Uihlein came tantalizingly close to shooting 59 at Kingsbarn. Next, he stormed into the lead by holing his second shot at the iconic 18th at St. Andrews. Then, the pair took the team title.
But it’s what he did next that speaks volumes for Uihlein: He donated 10,000 pounds to the Scottish Golf Union to help support future golf expenses for Neil.
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WOODS, SCOTT TO SKIP WGC-HSBC CHAMPIONS: It carries the title of World Golf Championship, provides a massive purse and rewards players with full FedEx Cup points this season. But it’s worth noting that six world-class players – including Nos. 1 and 2, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott – have opted to skip this week’s HSBC Champions in China.
Curious how Woods would travel to China for a one-day money-grab to play a head-to-head exhibition against Rory McIlroy (the kid from Northern Ireland won), yet not stay in the country for the WGC – especially when he’s got more world duty next week, a huge appearance fee at the Turkish Airlines Open.
Scott’s absence is understandable. He’s got four consecutive weeks of tournaments upcoming in his native Australia, a time when he will have to handle plenty of attention for having brought home the first Masters green jacket.
Also opting out of the HSBC Champions were Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker.
HSBC organizers at least batted .500 against that one-day Woods-McIlroy show. Whereas both participants last year went to China for their riches, then skipped the WGC, McIlroy will tee it up this year at Sheshan International GC.
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WALKER FINDS SUCCESS IN WRAP-AROUND’S MIXED BAG: When Jimmy Walker tees it up at Sheshan International, he will become the only player to have started all four PGA Tour tournaments in this wrap-around debut season.
Hard to say that Walker hasn’t accomplished his mission – to get off to a fast start in these first tournaments. A win, a T-12 and a sixth have put Walker atop the FedEx Cup points list. His $1,278,000 in earnings in just three tournaments is more than he made in 27 tournaments in 2010 and nearly what he made all of 2011 and all of 2012.
In other words, the wrap-around season meets with his approval.
It’s been a different set of stories for a handful of others, however.
Josh Teater, Cameron Tringale, Patrick Reed, Rory Sabbatini and Lucas Glover have all played three times without earning more than $40,000. The hope to pile up FEC points early has fizzled, with Teater earning 33, Reed 30, Tringale 27, Sabbatini 15, and Glover just 6. Considering that you’ve needed 363 (Jason Bohn, 2012) and 369 (Ben Crane, 2013) to at least get the 125th and final spot into the playoffs, clearly these lads haven’t pushed out to the fast start they envisioned.
So is anyone else on the upturn? Well, how about Aaron Baddeley? He finished joint fifth in Malaysia to earn his largest check ($280,000) since the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Falling to 101st in the FEC standings in 2013, Baddeley missed the cut in 12 of his last 14 starts, then started 2013-14 with another MC at the Frys.com Open. So clearly he is hoping Malaysia is the start of better times.
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MCILROY, DONALD SLIDE: Hard to believe, given that they began 1-2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, but Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald are now 62 and 61, respectively.
In the Race To Dubai standings, that is.
Presently, both stars are outside the top 60 that qualify for the European Tour finale, the DP World Championship in Dubai. It was at that tournament two years ago where Donald nailed down an impressive feat – money titles on both sides of the pond. And it was there a year ago when McIlroy put a dazzling birdie finish on his Race To Dubai title that had reporters calling him “Tigeresque.”
That hasn’t quite worked out, of course, as McIlroy has slipped to sixth in the world. Donald has fallen further, to 14th, and while their goals don’t seem so lofty, what with their push just to get into the DP World Championship, they are challenges nonetheless.
• • •
… AS DO 2009 MAJOR WINNERS: Watching Lucas Glover struggle out of the box offers a reminder that the major winners from 2009 have fought to maintain effectiveness. For a variety of reasons – equipment changes, injuries, coaching switches – Glover (U.S. Open), Stewart Cink (Open Championship) and Y.E. Yang (PGA) have not shown that same form since their 2009 seasons.
In 2010-13 combined, they’ve played in 259 PGA Tour tournaments with just 20 top 10s and a whopping 96 missed cuts (37 percent). Only Glover (2011 Wells Fargo) has won.
They ranked ninth (Cink), 18th (Glover), and 34th (Yang) in the world after their major triumphs, but presently sit 147th, 263rd, and 278th, respectively, now.
All three will be in the last of their five-year exemption into the 2014 Masters.
• • •
… AS DOES BUBBA WATSON: OK, his woes don’t quite measure those slides, but it’s been a very, very quiet long stretch of golf since Bubba Watson thundered his way to the 2012 Masters. In his latest tournament, Watson played well at times, but the end result was a T-31 in Malaysia, pretty much the same sort of pedestrian golf that has ruled his world of late.
Watson has played in 31 PGA Tour stops since taking the green jacket. While he’s made the cut in 27 of them, he only has five top 10s to show for it – two of those at the Travelers and one at the very limited Hyundai field.
A troublesome problem has been Watson’s scratchy play in Sunday rounds. He’s broken 70 in just eight of his last 26 attempts on that day.
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… AS DOES BAE: Not to wear out the poor-play storyline, but has anyone seen Sang-Moon Bae lately? When last in view, the young man from South Korea was impressing with a victory in the HP Byron Nelson Classic in Texas.
But in 12 tournaments thereafter, Bae missed seven cuts, didn’t finish better than T-31, and earned a mere $121,845.
When he started his 2013-14 season with a T-68 in Malaysia, it meant that Bae had played his last 38 rounds, dating back to last season, in a mind-blowing 51-over.
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EXEMPTIONS IN PLAYOFFS? We know the landscape is different on the European Tour, but still, some of the names who teed it up at the BMW Masters in China? Sponsor invites to John Daly and Paul McGinley? Luke Guthrie riding in for his first European PGA Tour tournament? And this was a playoff?
Can you imagine The Barclays kicking off the FedEx Cup playoffs with the top 125 in the standings, oh, and maybe Matteo Manassero and Thomas Bjorn?
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WHAT WOULD TABLOIDS SAY? News item: Johnny Manziel suggests he would love to party with Charlie Sheen, Rob Gronkowski, and Tiger Woods.
Reaction: What, the Three Stooges aren’t available?
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Q-SCHOOL DOUBLING DOWN: The second stage of Q-School for the European PGA Tour gets under way Saturday at four different sites in Spain. Among those who will tee it up are a handful of Americans who are also entered into the second stage of the Web.com Tour’s Q-school here in the States. Zac Blair, Philip Francis, Jonathan Fly and Will Strickler will take on the European challenge this week, then head back home for their U.S. assignment either Nov. 12-15 or 19-22.