By Rodney Page | Times Staff Writer
Tampa's Ryuji Imada is having the best season of his four-year PGA Tour career. He tied for second in the PODS Championship at Innisbrook two weeks ago after 2 under for four rounds on the demanding Copperhead Course. ¶ It was Imada's third top-five finish in 2008 and second straight after a tie for fifth at the Northern Trust Open on Feb. 17. ¶ He was hoping to add to that run last week, but John Daly's missed tee time in the pro-am caused a cascade effect that cost him a spot in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. ¶ He is, however, in today's WGC-CA Championship at Doral, where he can make up lost ground on both the money list (11th) and FedEx Cup points standings (ninth). He is 68th in the Official World Rankings, and if he can break into the top 50 in the next two weeks, he would qualify for the Masters on April 10.¶ "I see my name on the list,'' said Imada, a Chamberlain High grad. "There's Tiger (Woods) and Vijay (Singh) and then I'm one of them. It's great. But this isn't the end of it. I've got to keep grinding.''
Imada has certainly been grinding since he decided to leave the University of Georgia after his sophomore year. Until that time, grinding was not something he had to do.
Imada was an outstanding junior player by the time he arrived in Tampa from Japan with his family at age 14. He won his first junior tournament at 15, and in 1995 he was named the American Junior Golf Association's junior player of the year. Those are honors Woods and Phil Mickelson also have garnered.
Since then, Imada has spent five full seasons on the Nationwide Tour, a total of 120 tournaments, but didn't earn his PGA Tour card until 2005 by virtue of finishing third on the Nationwide money list the year before.
Imada, 31, is winless on the PGA Tour, which is not how he thought his career would play out to this point.
"Not quite,'' he said. "I played on the Nationwide Tour for five years. That's a really tough tour to make anything happen. It was very rewarding to finish third on the money list to come out here. It worked out well for me. It was a blessing in disguise to not come straight out of college. I got really good experience on the Nationwide Tour. I'm finally doing well.''
Right place, right time
In his first full season on the PGA Tour, Imada made 14 of 25 cuts and earned $650,221. He kept his card because he was 121st on the money list, just under the 125 cutoff. Each year has been better, something he credits to feeling like he belongs.
"It's not like I've been at it for 10-15 years,'' he said. "I've been out here four years now and I'm finally feeling comfortable. Some guys have different comfort levels. Some guys take only a few days, some guys take a while. It's taken me three or four years to happen.''
The next step is to win. Imada was in the hunt at the PODS Championship, but he was unable to make a move on the back nine and finished two shots behind Sean O'Hair. He also finished second at the Buick Invitational, eight shots behind Woods.
Imada, who has a residence in Carrollwood, has a 101 PGA events winless streak. He is fully aware of that fact.
"I think I'm just going to let it happen. I'm not going to think about it,'' he said. "I think that it will put too much pressure on me. It's always in the back of my mind.
"I practiced pretty hard this offseason and it's starting to pay off."
Times sports columnist John Romano contributed to this report.