MARANA, Ariz. – Distinguished against a pulsating blue sky, the white pellet cut through the desert air and elicited gasps of excitement from onlookers. When it hit the ground and screamed along the vibrant green carpet, the golf ball that belonged to Ryo Ishikawa drew even more good cheer from those standing near the ropes.
Dead, solid, perfect.
But as the ball rolled past 285 yards, then 290 and closed in on 300, the gasps of excitement turned to moans and groans. A dastardly bunker placed smack in the middle of the 18th fairway at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club loomed and if the ball got that far it spelled trouble for Ishikawa . . . but then it stopped, just one step shy of danger. Whew. A contingent of Japanese media clapped excitedly.
There’s no cheering in the press box? It’s an American thing; Japanese media covering Ishikawa don’t adhere, not when the “Bashful Prince” is in form, in contention, in public view.
With every step of every round, he carries a nation’s hopes on his shoulders.
That’s not an arbitrary observation, either. It’s widely accepted as part of the PGA Tour landscape when Ishikawa tees it up; a cultural thing, not to be criticized or judged as right or wrong. And for sure, Bill Haas found himself appreciating that part of the Ishikawa story as he was embroiled in a first-round match with the Japanese star in Wednesday’s opening round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
“I said that today (to brother Jay Haas Jr., his caddie). I have a lot of respect for him, because he’s got a lot of pressure on him every week to perform,” said Bill Haas, who bogeyed the 18th to lose, 1 up. “And today, he proved that’s not an issue for him.”
Indeed, give Ishikawa credit. As if the pressure of trying to make a sprint to the March 18 cutoff to qualify for the Masters isn’t already enough, he watched Haas birdie the par 5 13th to build a comfortable lead. At least 3 up with five to play seemed comfortable.
“Give him credit,” Haas said. “He could have easily said, ‘I don’t have it.’ But he made three birdies on the last five holes.”
Having arrived here at Dove Mountain ranked 56th in the world, Ishikawa needs to turn things on if he wants a fourth straight ticket to Augusta National April 5-8. It will come his way if he can get inside the top 50 by March 18, at the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Since Ishikawa’s only committed start between now and then is the Transitions Championship (March 8-11), clearly he’s in need of strong run here at the Accenture.
And being 3 down with five to play is not the recipe one would go with if the design was to go deep into the tournament.
Ishikawa, however, did not panic.
“I was not playing that well. But the last five holes . . . “
Call it impressive, starting at the par-4 14th when he hit his approach to 2 feet. Then at the short, 323-yard, uphill 15th, Ishikawa drove it 25 yards shy of the green, pitched to a foot, and was within a hole.
The comeback continued at the par-4 17th when the 20-year-old Ishikawa hit his approach from 178 yards to 18 feet and slipped home a slow, curling, right-to-lefter for his fourth birdie of the day. Terrific stuff, only Haas had every opportunity in the world to stem the momentum, because his approach from roughly 165 yards had come to rest just 5 feet from the hole.
Haas missed and oh, how it stung.
“I felt like I did a lot of good things,” said Haas. “I made a few putts and at 17 I hit it close – but missed. Multiple opportunities missed.”
Just a few days ago, Haas stood in one of his sport’s greatest theaters – Riviera Country Club – and basked in the glory of a playoff victory over none other than Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson. Throw in Keegan Bradley, a major winner, as the third playoff participant, and Haas deserves to feel great about himself.
The only thing is, at this level of golf, you think about today, not yesterday, and Haas was stunned by the way in which things had collapsed. He extended congratulations to Ishikawa – “I gave him the opportunity to beat me and hats off, he earned it.” – but grimaced at the way in which he finished. There was that missed birdie try at 17, then at 18, with just 157 yards to a front hole location, Haas came up 3 feet shy of his landing spot. Instead of kicking toward the hole, his ball fell off the false front and settled in a big swale, perhaps 20 yards shy.
Unable to get it up-and-down for par, Haas took off his hat and shook hands with Ishikawa, whose approach from 155 yards came to rest 10 feet from the hole. No, he didn’t make that birdie, but he didn’t have to; the “Bashful Prince” had given his faithful media contingent reason to send positive correspondence back home.
“The only thing I could do was to be myself,” Ishikawa said. “That’s the only thing to be done. No misses were allowed.”
Having long since accepted his lot in life – that he is the pride of Japan – Ishikawa brushed off questions about added pressure. That is a given. But he suggested that Haas, coming off a spirited win, felt more pressure “because I am ranked lower in the World Golf Rankings.”
Maybe, but whereas Haas had one American journalist watching his play down the stretch, Ishikawa’s every swing starting the first hole were monitored by upwards of two dozen media members. That Ishikawa gave them something to write and report about made him smile, though Haas could only shake his head.
“I sort of gave it to him on the last hole,” Haas said. “But he hit a nice shot in there and give him credit; he’s obviously a stud, a young player who has got a lot of game. He does a lot of good things.”