Japanese players cope with homeland disaster

Ryo Ishikawa of Japan walks onto the first green during the second round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

DORAL, Fla. – Hunter Mahan is the lead golfer, for he is one stroke ahead of a duo that includes world No. 1 Martin Kaymer midway through the WGC Cadillac Championship. Tiger Woods is the lead curiosity, for he hit drives that traveled 122 yards via fat smother hook and 188 yards by popup.

But neither development felt like the lead story or the lead emotion here at Doral.

Not with three Japanese players in the 66-man field playing golf in the aftermath of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of their homeland Friday. The strongest quake ever recorded there ignited a tsunami that swept over the northern part of the country.

As reports came in that the death toll would certainly rise to more than 1,000, Ryo Ishikawa, Yuta Ikeda and Hiroyuki Fujita tried to play golf with a clear mind on a windy day at the Doral Resort.

Understandably, it wasn’t always easy.

Ishikawa, the 19-year-old wonder who already has 11 international victories as a professional, followed an opening 65 with a 76 and fell six strokes off the lead.

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Tsunami waves swirl near a port in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong earthquake off its northeastern coast Friday, March 11, 2011.

“I’m not sure if it (earthquake news) had a direct effect, but he was not the same this afternoon as he was yesterday or this morning,” rising American star Rickie Fowler said after playing two days with Ishikawa.

It sure seemed to have a negative impact on his golf. Ishikawa said as much.

“I tried my best to block it out,” the 2009 Japan Golf Tour leading money winner said through a translator, “but as you can imagine it was a tough day.”

None of the three players knew of any problems regarding family and close friends. Ishikawa said he received a message from his father that said, “Focus on your golf, we are fine, do what you need to do.”

Of the three, Ikeda, 25, seemed affected the most. He grew up and lives in Chiba but went to school at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, the closest major city to the quake’s epicenter. Thousands of homes were reported destroyed in the region.

“It’s tough,” he said. “(Sendai) is my second hometown. To see what you had to see on TV was very difficult to take. I’m very, very concerned.”

Winner of four Japan events each of the past two years, Ikeda said he got an email from a friend in the middle of the night Saturday morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. He said he watched television and made phone calls after that.

Then there was the task of hitting a golf ball.

“Yes, it was very difficult (to play),” Ikeda said after shooting 74-73. “The tough part (is) the cell phones still are not working in Japan. I made many calls, but everyone I haven’t been able to contact to make sure they are OK.”

Scot Martin Laird, one of Ikeda’s playing competitors, sensed a lack of focus.

“I’m sure his mind was not really on the golf tournament today,” Laird said. “You can’t really blame him for it at all.”

Fujita, 41, from Tokyo, said he saw scenes of horror before he teed off Friday morning but wasn’t sure his family was OK until he got a message in the afternoon while on the sixth hole. He shot 71-73.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Fujita, the Japan tour’s order of merit leader last year, said of the disaster. “It is not in this world.”

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