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Japan’s Tiger cub Ishikawa needs breathing space

April 11, 2009

GOLF-MASTERS/

Picture this: You are one of your country’s biggest celebrities, you have signed a multi-million dollar deal with IMG, teenage girls scream when you walk into a room and you have a media circus tripping over each other to follow your every move — before you’re even old enough to drive.

Japan’s teenage golf sensation Ryo Ishikawa has had major companies knocking down his door since he shot to fame in May, 2007 by becoming the youngest winner on the Japanese tour at 15 years and eight months. The schoolboy won his first tournament as a professional last November after joining the paid ranks at the start of 2008, marking his rookie year by becoming the youngest player to crack the 100 million yen (around $1 million) mark in prize money in a single season.

That sum pales compared with the tens of millions of dollars he is projected to earn once he leaves high school and once the Ishikawa bandwagon rolled into Augusta National for the U.S. Masters earlier this month, the whole world wanted to hear what “Japan’s Tiger Woods” (as his country’s excitable press were quick to christen him) thought about playing his first major, American hamburgers and, well, Tiger Woods. “Excited,” “just delicious” and “I respect Tiger” he said in English, grinning from ear to ear.

But after talking about winning a green jacket before he reached 20, the 17-year-old, who began with a creditable 73 on Thursday, failed to make the cut following a five-over-par 77 in the second round.

The weight of expectation on Ishikawa, whose pearly white smile has made him one of Japan’s most recognisable and frequently photographed celebrities, had been enormous. Japanese sportsmaker Yonex had designed a “million dollar driver” for him to take to Augusta after Ishikawa became the youngest player ever invited to play at the Masters.

Already seen as the saviour of Japan’s flagging domestic tour, Ishikawa has a junior golf tournament named after him, recently had a giant ice sculpture of his face carved in his honour at the Sapporo Snow Festival and plans to build replica holes of Augusta National’s course near his home in a bid to emulate his boyhood hero Woods, who has won four Masters titles.

With daily talk shows devoting huge chunks to Ishikawa and ex-pros coming out of the woodwork to offer advice to a player whose swing is a thing of beauty and needs no tampering, the suspicion is Ishikawa simply needs some time and, perhaps more crucially, space to fulfill his obvious talent.

PHOTO: Ryo Ishikawa of Japan hits out of a sand trap on the 16th green during second round play at the 2009 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, April 10, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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