Ishikawa steps up game as comfort on Tour rises

Ryo Ishikawa with caddie Simon Clarke at the HSBC Champions on Thursday.

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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 golf pressure one can imagine.

Some golfers arrive at the threshold of the professional game with great hype and expectations? Forget that. Ishikawa, since he was 16, has carried a nation’s golf hopes upon his shoulders.

For Ishikawa, 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. To watch him after any PGA Tour round is to marvel at how much patience one person can extend.

Rarely has a nickname fit quite like Ishikawa’s. He respectfully is 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 2008),” Billy Hurley said. “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 recent Las 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 interview in front of Japanese reporters, print and electronic. It always made for great fodder with American reporters who felt blessed to get a minute of Tiger Woods’ time. Although “the chair” no longer is used, Ishikawa has introduced a new wrinkle. Having worked hard at his English, he commendably will handle as best he can questions from American writers.

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 here. At the same time, Ishikawa clearly 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.”

• See all of senior writer Jim McCabe's notes for the week here.

If there’s a storyline that has blossomed early in this first wraparound 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 for him 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 – a three-time winner in Japan and recent Presidents Cup participant – 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 connect with Ishikawa in an uncanny way. 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 crossover 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 emerging maturity, a pat on the back is owed Clarke. The veteran caddie joined Ishikawa for the Japan Open in October 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, and it was doubtful he’d be in the playoffs, 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 era carrying four wedges, but Ishikawa had only two: 51 and 59 degrees.

“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 also will be in China, but to suggestions that there is a rivalry between the two, Ishikawa smiles, then shakes his head no. “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 seem to be with the return of Ishikawa’s game. Still so young, “The Bashful Prince” already has played in 17 major championships and nine WGCs; there have been 69 PGA Tour starts, six top 10s, including 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 said. “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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