Japanese hero Ishikawa proving he belongs on TOUR

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March 14, 2012
Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Everywhere Ryo Ishikawa goes, they follow.

The golf course, driving range, parking lot, the clubhouse while he's eating lunch. Even the bathroom. OK, not there, but pretty much everywhere else.

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They are the Japanese media, 15-20 reporters and photographers, sometimes more. Whether it's this week's Transitions Championship, or next month's Masters, or any tournament Ishikawa plays on the PGA TOUR, or anywhere else, they'll be there to chronicle it.

If the TOUR played music when golfers got to the first tee the way baseball does for relief pitchers out of the pen, Ishikawa's would be "Every Breath You Take" by The Police.

Every breath you take

And every move you make

Every bond you break, every step you take

I'll be watching you

It's been this way for a few years for the 20-year-old Ishikawa, who in 2007 became the youngest winner ever of a Japan Golf Tour event at the age of 15 years, 8 months. A year later he turned pro and has since climbed into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking with 10 wins around the world, most of which have come on the Japan Tour.

He is, for all intents and purposes, the Tiger Woods of Japan. Maybe even bigger. After all, even Woods can go out for a meal now and again.

When Ishikawa is at home in Japan, he can't. "No," Ishikawa laughed, explaining that it's been about two years since he last had dinner out. "Maybe forever [it will be that way].

"Here [in the U.S.] is much different. I'm very comfortable."

He certainly seems to be, at least on the course.

Last week, Ishikawa nearly won in Puerto Rico before finishing second. He also received a special exemption into the Masters, which he'll play for the fourth time after tying for 20th there a year ago.

"I was pretty happy when I got the special exemption from Augusta," said Ishikawa, who found out from his manager and admitted he was surprised he got an invite.

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But at 47th in the world, he shouldn't be.

Thanks to the $378,000 Ishikawa earned in Puerto Rico, Ishikawa has also earned enough for special temporary membership on TOUR and unlimited sponsor exemptions through the end of the year if he so chooses.

To earn full status through next year, Ishikawa needs to earn just over $85,000 to secure his card.

Of course therein lies somewhat of a dilemma for Ishikawa, who remains loyal to his native country. After the Masters, he will return to Japan to play there but it is expected that he will play in the U.S. full-time if he earns his card, which Ishikawa admits does make him a little sad.

"I grow up in Japan, so I appreciate it and their tour," Ishikawa said.

If nothing else, though, he's certainly proved he belongs.

"For me personally, I would go watch Ryo," said Tiger Woods last year when asked which one of the game's young players he would be most likely to watch. "I like how he plays. I like how he goes about his business. I really like his putting stroke. It's a pretty pure stroke. I think how he manages himself around the golf course is pretty good for a person still in his teens."

That's not to say the transition has been easy. The courses here are much longer, the greens bigger, more undulating and firmer than in Japan.

Then there's the cultural barrier, though Ishikawa seems to be handling that part quite well.

"People are very warm," he said. "I love American food, like hamburgers."

And he can go out and enjoy one here, too.

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