LAWRENCE, Kan. – Koichiro Ishika has just two experiences with American golf: Alvamar Country Club and Pinehurst Resort. Given Pinehurst’s recent headlines, it’s understandable which course he lists as his favorite.
“It’s more technical,” Ishika said of Pinehurst. Also, there is less wind.
Ishika is part of the small Japanese contingent taking the AJGA’s Under Armour/Gary Woodland Championship by storm at Alvamar. A second-consecutive 1-over 73 at Alvamar’s Championship Course on Wednesday bumped Ishika to the top of the leaderboard, and gave him a two-shot lead on Andrew Beckler and Brooks Brown. Ishika started strong, with two birdies and no bogeys in his first 12 holes, but made three bogeys on the more difficult back nine to come back to the field.
Ishika is one of three Japanese players at the Under Armour/Woodland who received a special exemption into this field. The AJGA grants the Japanese Junior Golf Association spots in the field at various tournaments throughout the year, and players are chosen based on a number of factors, such as ranking and performance in specific events. The Japanese teen made the 15-hour flight from Japan with his compatriots just two days before the first round. Perhaps it’s why Ishika, minutes removed from his second round, was ready to leave the golf course in favor of a much-needed nap.
Ishika and two other players – Kenato Nakai, T-13 in the boys division, and Himawari Ogura, leading the girls division – traveled to Kansas with Hiroshi Nishioka, a staff member at the Japanese Junior Golf Association. Nishioka will make several such trips throughout the year, but is familiar with the U.S. – prior to starting with the JJGA in 2011, he worked as an athletic trainer in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nishioka graduated from Washington State University in 2010.
At Nishioka’s side, Ishika returned stateside this week with spunk. He takes English classes every day in school, and tests out phrases with a wide grin. His favorite player is Phil Mickelson, but he was rooting hard for fellow Japanese player Hideki Matsuyama at last week’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Three years ago, Ishika played Pinehurst No. 4 for the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. Then 12 years old, he won his division by finishing one shot ahead of the defending champion. He was 13 under for 54 holes.
After a long flight home at week’s end, Ishika will make one more round-trip from Japan this summer. He will play in the Callaway Junior World Championship on July 14-18.
As for Ogura, a second-round 77 on Wednesday left her at 6-over 150 for the tournament and with a one-shot lead. Ogura struggled with her putter, but still managed three birdies. She said she just couldn’t get comfortable on the greens – then again, she’s a long way from home.
The Under Armour/Woodland is Ogura’s first AJGA event, too. She has only played one other time in the U.S., an International Junior Golf Tour event in May 2013. Ogura heard about that event through a Japanese edition of Golf Digest. She is testing out U.S. golf, but isn’t sure exactly where it will take her.
Ogura has tried to qualify for three Japanese LPGA events in the past year. She came close once, but has yet to get into a field. Ogura got a little motivation from friend Minami Katsu, a 15-year-old amateur who won the JLPGA tour’s Vantelin Ladies Amateur played in Tokyo in April. It made her the youngest winner of a JLPGA event.
With Nishoka translating, Ogura explained a most sound strategy: play to win every day.
“She wants to win,” Nishioka explained, “but she’s not looking to be famous.”
Perhaps not yet, anyway.