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Japanese teen causing quite a sensation

Ryo Ishikawa, 17, has invitations to Riviera this week, followed by Bay Hill and the Masters.

February 18, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

Over here at the playhouse usually known as Riviera Country Club, there hasn't been this much hubbub about a high school student since 1992, when some 16-year-old from Western High in Anaheim turned up and missed the cut yet wowed the crowd.

"These guys are just too good," Tiger Woods actually said that Friday. "I just don't think I'm ready for this."

It's jarring that such words ever did emanate from Woods, and 17 years later on Tuesday there came another set of uncommon golf words:

"Hello, America."

So went the careful diction and big smile of a sensation born in -- make sure not to spit your coffee -- 1991, and so went cameras clicking and whirring and pens scribbling in a room full of 100 Japanese reporters who have lent spectacle to this Northern Trust Open, plus a few stray Americans.

Evidently this pup of 17 had rehearsed his English introduction diligently with his father in his hotel, and so he continued:

"I'm Ryo Ishikawa from Japan. First of all, I would like to thank Northern Trust Open for giving me" -- and then he got charmingly stuck -- "accepting, opportunity. It's like a dream."

Heck, his whole life, it's like a dream. He materialized at the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup in May 2007 at age 15 for his debut on the Japan Tour, and he shot a 69 and a 66 on a 36-hole Sunday and became the youngest male on Earth to win on a major tour. He was so anonymous the Japanese media had to rally for a news conference at his high school.

"How you pronounce my name, it is Ryo," he continued on Tuesday, and he said the little word rapidly with maybe a "D" sound in it, then said, "Everyone repeat out of me, Ryo!"

Here's Ryo's life: He turned professional, reaped endorsements, won again on tour last November even though he said his hands shook on No. 18 "like a scene from a 'manga' comic story." The Northern Trust Open invited him here. Arnold Palmer invited him to Bay Hill. Augusta National invited him to the Masters, leaving him dazed.

"I have wanted to play on the PGA Tour since I was young," he actually said on Tuesday, "and it's kind of like a dream playing with those superstar players" such as practice partners Chris DiMarco and J.J. Henry.

Soon, he finished talking, but Larry Fitzgerald himself might not elude the remarkably swift while thoroughly polite Japanese media throng, and so a mob of 25 caught Ishikawa in the yard outside the media tent that has swelled to meet the needs he created.

He stood there in pants so bright yellow that witnesses should've worn SPF 50, sunglasses tucked in his considerable hair, a yellow necklace. He answered earnestly and patiently, even through lulls. A nearby PGA Tour official quietly radioed for assistance to free him, but Ishikawa apparently deals with the media partly by figuring they're rooting for him. "He just said if the game of golf can spread through him, he doesn't mind," a Japanese reporter translated.

Said Ryder Cup hit Hunter Mahan, an ancient 26: "I probably wouldn't know which tee to go off if I was 17 trying to play on the PGA Tour. . . . I probably would have to call my mom and go, 'What do I do? I want to eat, what do I do?' I wasn't mature enough to handle it for sure, but I'm sure he is."

Said 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson, a decrepit 32: "Yeah, at 17, I was worried about soccer practice, golf practice, studies on occasion, where I was going out on Friday night, and that was about it. No, I can't imagine being in this arena at that age."

Said Golf Today Japan's Yuichiro Kato, who flew over from Tokyo, "When I ask a question to him, he always answers politely and it seems like he is always thinking deeply."

The golfer who inspires him most, of course, would be the one who turned up here at 16 in 1992. And like that one, he aspires only stratospherically.

"My ultimate goal is to win the Masters," he said in Japanese, revealing that the Japanese translation of "Masters" is "Masters."

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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Northern Trust Open

Thursday-Sunday

at Riviera Country Club

TV: Thursday and Friday, the Golf Channel at noon. Saturday and Sunday, Channel 2 at noon.

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L.A. Open lived up to its name

African American golf pros were given more opportunities in Los Angeles than they were elsewhere. PAGE 8

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