It is Monday morning and Ryo Ishikawa is playing a practice round on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course. Just him and his caddie — and 33 members of the Japanese media. The media herd will follow Ryo (R is pronounced like an L and it sounds like "yo'') to the practice putting green. He will do exciting things like work on 4-foot breakers and chip from the short fringe. Yet the cameras are rolling and notes are taken as the media prepare to report back on his every move. That's the way it has been the past two years for Ishikawa. At 17, he is one of Japan's best known athletes. Ishikawa became the youngest golfer to win on any professional tour, taking the Japan Tour's KSB Cup as a 15-year-old amateur. It was also his first tournament on the tour. He won twice last year as a professional and became the youngest to crack the top 100 in the official world rankings. Ishikawa is Japan's Tiger Woods. He is its Michael Jordan. He is its great golf hope.
"He's very popular,'' said Keigo Amemiya, a staff writer for the Sports Nippon Newspapers in Tokyo. "He's not as popular as (Mariners outfielder) Ichiro (Suzuki), but he's pretty close. It's that he is always smiling, always very pleasant. He was known in golf circles, but when he won as a 15-year-old, the whole country started to know who he was.''
In Japan, baseball is king. Soccer, or football, is second. Golf fits in just behind those two. But when you're so successful so soon, the eyes of the country are on you. There are 57 credentialed media from Japan in Tampa Bay for the Transitions Championship, and it is their sole job to report on Ishikawa. They will follow him to Bay Hill in Orlando next week, then to the Masters two weeks later. Ishikawa is playing this week on a sponsor's exemption. It is his second PGA event (he played the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles in February), and his first professional tournament in Florida.
Dubbed the "Bashful Prince'' by a TV announcer after he won the KSB Cup, Ishikawa considers himself neither bashful nor a prince. He wears brightly colored pants (pink on Monday) and colorful visors to match. He has a club head cover bearing the face of his golfing idol, 33-year-old Ian Poulter of Britain. He also has a head cover with his own likeness.
It would be easy to spot Ishikawa, even without the media horde.
"I like the name, but I'm not used to it,'' Ishikawa said through interpreter Jum Pei. "I sure don't think I'm a prince. And I'm not bashful either.''
Before the Japan Tour win, Ishikawa was an accomplished amateur. His father, a banker, is a big golf fan and introduced him to the sport. He started playing when he was 6.
He started winning tournaments shortly after. He was known in the amateur ranks after a successful junior golf career, which included his first trip to Florida for a tournament at Bay Hill when he was 14. There was not much national fanfare until he won at 15.
"Never played on a course with galleries and grandstands before,'' he said. "I was very surprised by that week. Did it change my life? Absolutely.''
Endorsement deals started rolling in. Yonex outfits him from head to toe. He is also sponsored by Panasonic. He was a millionaire by the time he turned pro last year.
It's not as if Ishikawa is a worldwide figure like Woods. At least not yet. He can walk into stores and restaurants in the United States without being mobbed. Ishikawa said he doesn't mind the attention he gets in Japan.
"It's always been people saying nice things,'' Ishikawa said of the media crush. ''I don't hate it. I'm fine with it. But sometimes I wish I could go shopping by myself. I can do that over here. I enjoy that.''
Ishikawa plans to play more in the United States. He has learned to love cheeseburgers, and he proudly tries to explain that his English is getting better.
"I had the highest score on my English exam in school last week,'' Ishikawa said with a big smile.
A professional golfer with three career wins and his sights set on the Masters, and he's still in high school. Ishikawa said he started watching the Masters about eight years ago, when Woods began to dominate. He would get up early to watch the year's first major before heading to school.
He told himself that one day he would play at Augusta. That chance came this year when he was awarded an invitation for his stellar play on the Japan Tour. If Ishikawa shows up near the top of the leaderboard, his international status will skyrocket.
"Playing on the PGA Tour was my longtime dream,'' he said. "I'm very happy about making that dream come true. For a 17-year-old high school student, playing a PGA Tour event is a much bigger thing than for the older players.''
Ishikawa said he enters every tournament expecting to win. He was discouraged by his performance in Los Angeles, where he missed the cut, but he is not deterred. He returned home after the February tournament and worked on his iron play.
He said his goal is to play four days at the Transitions Championship and do the same in Orlando. And when he tees it up at Augusta, he said he's ready to take on Tiger and everyone else.
"My ultimate goal is to win the Masters,'' he said. "I'm practicing right now to win the Masters. When I show up to a tournament I'm always thinking about winning.''
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or (727) 893-8810
The Copperhead Course
|Par: 71. Yards: 7,340|