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Tampa's Imada relishes long-awaited PGA Tour win

Ryuji Imada, who came to Tampa from Japan 
at age 14, relishes his first PGA Tour win Sunday.

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Ryuji Imada, who came to Tampa from Japan at age 14, relishes his first PGA Tour win Sunday.

Really, the final putt didn't travel that far. Just 7,554 miles or so.

Honestly, the ball didn't take that long to drop. It couldn't have been much more than 17 years.

For Ryuji Imada, winner, the journey was finally complete. He was on the 18th green of a PGA tournament, and for the first time, he was the last man standing. After all this time, after all this distance, and finally, the game that had driven Imada for most of his life had allowed him to arrive.

Yeah, it was worth it. As Imada celebrated Sunday's victory in the AT&T Classic in Duluth, Ga., it was worth every mile and worth every moment sacrificed. It was worth trading in Japan for Tampa and worth leaving his parents as a teenager to chase a dream. It was worth all the practice swings and worth all of the frustrations.

After all, wasn't this why Imada had come to America in the first place?

Like a lot of great stories, this one begins long ago and far away.

The scene is an airport, and parents are about to send their 14-year-old son halfway around the world. As you might imagine, it was not an easy thing for either Takashi Imada or his wife, Chisako.

Ah, but young Ryuji would not stop talking about America. He had fallen in love with the game at first swing, back when he was 7 and had followed his older brother Takasunni to the course. He would watch telecasts of PGA Tour events with Greg Norman or Jack Nicklaus or Seve Ballesteros or Nick Price. And he would dream about a faraway place called "Tampa."

It was in the early '90s when Japanese brothers Eiji and Masaki Tagashira opened a golf academy in Cheval. For $25,000, teenagers could come and share a room, go to school and refine their golf skills. For young Ryuji, it sounded perfect. Especially the part about golf.

Later, he decided, he would worry about inconveniences such as not being able to speak a word of English.

Can you imagine? Can you picture being a teenager in a new country with a different language and a strange culture? Can you imagine being parents who would allow a child to go?

"It wasn't easy for them," Imada said Monday. "I owe them a lot for letting me come. They were very understanding.

"The hard thing was communication, trying to speak what was on my mind. The good thing was playing golf sunup to sundown."

Even when the golf academy closed, and some of the other Japanese golfers returned home, Imada stayed.

Why not? Imada's game was improving rapidly. He became one of the top juniors around, then one of the best amateurs in the country. It was easy to imagine a successful PGA career would follow.

It has taken awhile. After graduating from Chamberlain High and spending two years at the University of Georgia, Imada spent five years on the second-tier Nationwide Tour. Before his victory in the AT&T, Imada had played 107 PGA Tour events without a title.

"I didn't think it would be this hard," said Imada, 31. "Growing up, things came easy. Winning in junior golf, amateur events, it all came easy. I didn't have to think a lot. I just played it, and I won a lot of the events I played in.

"When I came out of school, I figured I'd be on the PGA Tour right away. I won on the Nationwide event the next year. I figured I'd play it for a year and get on the tour and be gone. But it became tough, and I began pressing it. I never had to play 30 weeks a year, so I got tired, and I kept pushing myself, and I started getting injured.

"I think the biggest thing is getting comfortable. If I play well, I can play with anyone in the world."

Still, there is a difference between playing with professional golfers and beating them. And, yes, Imada admits he wondered if he would ever win.

A year ago, for instance, Imada lost a playoff at the AT&T when he dumped one in the water. Although that was his best finish, it left him disappointed.

"There is a big difference between winning and coming in second," Imada said. "I never knew just how big it was."

How big is winning? It's big enough for a $990,000 check, which puts Imada fourth on the tour in money winnings (he has won more than $5-million since 2005). It's big enough to boost him to 49th in the World Golf Ranking. It's big enough to guarantee him a spot in next year's Masters.

Maybe, just maybe, it was big enough to start a trend.

"I certainly hope it's the start of many," Imada said. "But in this game, as soon as you think you have it figured out, you don't."

He is one of us now. Imada has lived longer in Tampa than he did in Japan. It was here that his game blossomed until it caught up with his dreams. After all this time, he is as Floridian as sunsets and mosquito bites.

"If I didn't come to Tampa, none of this would have been possible," Imada said. "If I had stayed in Japan, I don't even know if I would still be playing golf."

Tampa's Imada relishes long-awaited PGA Tour win 05/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 2:28pm]

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