Ishikawa earns status on anniversary of disaster

Ryo Ishikawa, right, stands with his caddie Hiroyuki Kato and members of the media to observe a moment of silence on the first anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan during the final round of the Puerto Rico Open.

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico - Driving ranges aren’t often the site of much drama late on a Sunday afternoon. But as George McNeill walked down the final hole at Trump International, his Puerto Rico Open victory all but assured, most of the on-site media, including camera crews from two separate continents, were gathered on the practice tee.

They were waiting to see if the boy wonder would be crowned a PGA Tour champion. McNeill’s birdies on Trump International’s final three holes ensured that story wouldn’t be written, but Ryo Ishikawa, the 20-year-old Japanese star, still achieved something special: membership on the PGA Tour.

Ishikawa’s birdies on three of Sunday’s final four holes gave him his first PGA Tour runner-up, two shots behind McNeill. The $378,000 was enough for him to earn special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, which is awarded to players who surpass No. 150 on the previous year’s money list.

If he accepts, which it seems certain he will, he can accept unlimited sponsor exemptions this season. Non-members are limited to seven invitations, and Ishikawa was approaching that limit. Puerto Rico was his fourth of the season.

“It was a great experience to be very close to the winning experience,” said Ishikawa, whose previous best PGA Tour finish was fourth at last year’s WGC-Bridgestone. “It felt like dreaming sometimes.”

Ishikawa, who started the week ranked 53rd in the world, accepted an exemption to Puerto Rico two weeks earlier to try to crack the world ranking’s top 50 in time to earn a Masters invitation. An unexpected special invitation to Augusta National, awarded a couple of days before the Puerto Rico Open began, ended that quest. A PGA Tour win, or at least Tour membership, became Ishikawa’s main goal.

He was the story throughout the week at this event held in the shadow of the World Golf Championship at Doral. Rarely do players so high in the world ranking compete at the PGA Tour’s “opposite-field” events, for they’re usually exempt into that week’s major or WGC.

Some 200 fans followed Ishikawa on the front nine Sunday, compared to about 10 for the final group, which included McNeill.

“He’s a draw. Who wouldn’t want to follow him?” McNeill said. “He’s 20 years old and he’s good, no doubt. He’s the next up-and-coming star. It didn’t surprise me.”

Ishikawa has earned $582,471 this season, well on his way to earning his PGA Tour card for the 2013 season. He must surpass the earnings of No. 125 on this year’s money list to earn a 2013 card. Last year, it took $668,166 to finish 125th in earnings.

The Puerto Rico Open’s final round fell on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. Ishikawa and about a dozen countrymen gathered on the first tee for a moment of silence before he teed off. He also wore a black ribbon on his hat.

“Right now it’s still serious in Japan, but people are trying to recover,” he said. “But it is getting better, so I am going to try to win.”

Ishikawa said he played braver in the final round because of the tribute to his countrymen. A bold short game allowed him to contend this week despite struggles with his driver.

He hit just 54 percent of his fairways this week, ranking 69th among the 73 players who made the cut. He was first in putts per round (26.5) and third in putts per green in regulation (1.65), though. He not only got the ball up-and-down on a consistent basis, but rarely left himself with a testing par putt. Many of his chips burned the edge of the hole before settling within a couple feet.

He gave himself a chance to win with tremendous up-and-downs on the final two holes. He birdied No. 17 by hitting a 50-yard bunker shot to approximately 5 feet, then nearly holed his chip from just off the green on the par-5 18th.

“Short game recoveries made the week for me,” he said.

Ishikawa, who’s scheduled to compete at the Transitions Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, likely will re-enter the top 50 with Sunday’s high finish. Remaining there throughout the year would earn him exemptions into majors and WGCs. Regardless, he already joined one select group this week: the membership of the PGA Tour.

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