Away from home, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa will keep playing golf to bring his country hope

Ryo Ishikawa, at a Transitions Championship news conference, says his parents in Tokyo are safe but he is unsure about some friends.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Ryo Ishikawa, at a Transitions Championship news conference, says his parents in Tokyo are safe but he is unsure about some friends.

PALM HARBOR — He wakes up in the morning and reads about heartbreak. He returns to his room at night and watches an endless loop of devastation.

He is talented, charming and fabulously wealthy, but Ryo Ishikawa is also a teenager, a virtual kid watching from half a world away as his homeland suffers unspeakable horrors.

At times, the golf course can be a refuge, a haven from the dispatches. But eventually, inevitably, Ishikawa is staring once again at the new reality of Japan.

"I am always watching the news. I can't walk away from it," Ishikawa said through an interpreter after a news conference at the Innisbrook resort on Tuesday afternoon, where he is preparing for the Transitions Championship. "Whether it's Japanese news through the Internet or on American TV, I am always watching or reading.

"It is where my heart is."

He is more fortunate than many. Shortly after he woke up to the news of an earthquake and a tsunami early Friday, Ishikawa, 19, heard from his parents in Tokyo via e-mail. He has since been in fairly regular contact with them, first from the Cadillac Championship at Doral over the weekend and now from Innisbrook.

He initially had thoughts of returning home but has since decided his presence in Japan would serve little purpose. And so he will remain in the States until after the Masters next month.

"It almost pains me that I am out here and the people of Japan are going through this crisis," he said. "I never once felt I was lucky that I'm out here. My heart and soul are with the people of Japan. Even though I am physically here, my mind is there.

"Thousands are struggling over there as I speak here today, and I would like to perform at my best with them in mind."

It is not hubris for Ishikawa to think his performance at the Transitions Championship could have an impact in Japan. Aside from Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, polls show Ishikawa is the most popular athlete in his country.

Think LeBron James coming out of high school. Think Stephen Strasburg at an even younger age. Ishikawa is that big. His is a world of entourages and endorsements. Of cameras and ovations.

Ishikawa was the leading money winner on the Japan Golf Tour in 2009 — before he had graduated from high school.

That was around the time he became the youngest player to crack the top 100 in the world rankings. And in case you're wondering, he took that record away from Tiger Woods.

When at age 17 he became the youngest to crack the top 50, he wiped Woods off the books again.

Ishikawa is also chasing some of the paychecks that once might have interested Woods. A Wall Street Journal report estimated he was making $10 million annually in endorsements from such companies as Toyota, McDonald's and Panasonic.

He has not yet caused a stir on the PGA Tour, but Ishikawa is still six months shy of his 20th birthday. Woods was 21 when he made history by winning the Masters.

And don't think Ishikawa isn't aware of those kinds of comparisons. It was Woods' successes that drove Ishikawa as a youngster in Japan, and still pushes him today.

At a private practice range in Japan, he has imported various types of North American grass so he can become more proficient on typical PGA surfaces.

This is why Ishikawa says he can do more for people in Japan at Innisbrook — or at Bay Hill next week or Augusta in early April — than he could by returning home early.

"I would love to win for the people of Japan, but that is a thought I have always carried with me when I represent the people of Japan when playing overseas," Ishikawa said. "Given this type of crisis, my motivation is at the highest it's ever been. There is no negative pressure. I just feel very focused, zoned in.

"If I can produce such a brilliant result, and if I can be in the news following all of the tragic events being reported and lead to news of encouragement or be a source of hope for people in Japan, I would be at my happiest."

He still has friends he has not heard from near areas that were hit most severely. And he understands that many in the country are still dealing with rolling blackouts, shutdowns in transportation systems and fears of nuclear fallout.

It is difficult, he said, to comprehend all that is going on back home.

Still, Ishikawa said, those thoughts will be left behind once the tournament begins Thursday. He may not be able to turn away from news reports in the quiet of his room, but he will not carry that burden with him to the first tee.

"I already decided it is not going to affect my play," he said.

"I'm not going to let it."

Away from home, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa will keep playing golf to bring his country hope 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:09pm]

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