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To find drama at U.S. Open, follow Ryo Ishikawa

Ryo Ishikawa, 18, hits out of a bunker on the 12th hole during the second round. He made bogey, one of two on the day.

Associated Press

Ryo Ishikawa, 18, hits out of a bunker on the 12th hole during the second round. He made bogey, one of two on the day.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — In some darkened conference room, a junior exec at NBC is schmoozing the boss this morning.

Sir, think of it as alternative programming, he says. Think of it as cutting edge. Think of it as the first evening in a new era in golf. You know what, boss? Think of NBC's prime-time coverage of the U.S. Open this way:

As the night Ryo Ishikawa made viewers temporarily forget Tiger Woods.

Oh, sure, it's an outrageous pitch. The network was looking forward to big ratings and reaping huge advertising dollars for tonight's telecast based on the idea of Tiger Woods playing for a U.S. Open title at historic Pebble Beach.

But Woods is way off the pace and showing no signs of making a run up the leaderboard. Granted, Ernie Els is just a couple of strokes back and Phil Mickelson made a remarkable charge late Friday, so the final groups are not completely without name recognition.

But if you're looking for star power tonight, you might consider the teenager with the unruly hair and the loud trousers.

Ishikawa is already a phenomenon in Japan but mostly a rumor in America. He is the kid who won a tour event in Japan at age 15 in 2007. He is the kid who became the youngest ever to be ranked in the world's top 50 at 17. He is the kid who shot 58 in the final round of another tournament in Japan last month.

He is the kid who is a couple of rounds away from being a global happening.

"He's extraordinary," Els said. "It's amazing that he's only 18."

Two rounds into the toughest tournament of the year, Ishikawa is tied for second at 1 under. He is tied with Els, who won this event when Ishikawa was 2 years old. He is in contention with Mickelson, who had his first PGA Tour win before Ishikawa was born.

Naturally, there is a chance Ishikawa could fade before our eyes this evening. Actually, it's probably a better-than-average chance. For all his talent, for all his accomplishments at such a young age, he is still ridiculously inexperienced on a stage this large.

He has played in four previous majors and missed the cut three times. The only time he stuck around for the weekend was at last year's PGA Championship, when he finished 56th.

But those who have watched him say Ishikawa has the game to play Pebble Beach. Those who know him say he has the confidence to stand shoulder to shoulder with champions.

"If I was to turn on my TV and watch anyone play, I would like to watch Ryo play," said 21-year-old Irish phenom Rory McIlroy. "I think the way he plays and the way he handles himself and carries himself makes him a great role model to a lot of people."

There are plenty of CEOs in Japan who feel the same way. At last count, he had 15 different commercials for various products. He pushes shrimp burgers for McDonald's. Cars for Toyota. Flights for All Nippon Airlines. He's a spokesman for Coca-Cola and Panasonic. A recent Wall Street Journal report said the 18-year-old is pulling in $10 million annually on endorsements.

Already, he is challenging Ichiro as Japan's most popular athlete. (And he is willing to answer questions in English more than the Mariners star, who has been in Seattle for nine years.) Dozens of journalists follow him from continent to continent to report on the most amazing minutiae. The prime minister was on hand when he was given Japan's highest sports honor.

Back home he is known as Hanikami Oji (Bashful Prince), but the nickname is not altogether accurate. There is an appealing arrogance to Ishikawa. A self-assuredness that comes from devoting a lifetime to a single pursuit.

His father, who is a banker in Japan, put a golf club in his hands at a young age, and Ryo soon became obsessed after watching Woods win the first of his Masters titles in 1997. Ishikawa has opened his own private practice range and is said to be importing the same type of grass they use at Augusta National so he can become proficient on the surface.

The kid knows he is good and is not intimidated easily. On Thursday and Friday, he was paired with McIlroy and Tom Watson, who has 40 years and eight majors on him. During their first round together, they talked about some golf courses Watson had consulted on in Japan. By the time they parted at the end of the second round, Watson was no longer talking about course design.

"Today," Ishikawa said, "Tom said to me that I will have a good future."

To Watson, the idea of a teenager winning the U.S. Open is not out of the question. There is a certain freedom to being young, Watson explained. A fearlessness for those who are not old enough to know better.

"His putting is excellent. That makes up for so many mistakes," Watson said. "He has great touch, you can tell that. He hits the ball very high. He hits the ball long enough. He can get it out there. That combination — high, great putting and touch — you're going to win.

"He reminded me of me when I was 18. Made everything."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

To find drama at U.S. Open, follow Ryo Ishikawa 06/19/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 19, 2010 1:52am]

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