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Vincent Johnson, Ryo Ishikawa do well at Riviera

Johnson, playing on a Charlie Sifford exemption, shoots a 70, and Japanese phenom has a 73 in front of big crowds.

February 20, 2009|James Wagner

Aside from the swirling news of Tiger Woods' return and a first-day leaderboard stacked with familiar names, it was a day for young guns.

A 22-year-old playing on a special exemption and a 17-year-old from Japan drew plenty of attention at the opening round of the Northern Trust Open on Thursday at the Riviera Country Club.

Vincent Johnson, given a shot at the PGA Tour event thanks to the inaugural Charlie Sifford exemption, shot a one-under-par 70 in his opening round. The exemption goes to a player who otherwise would not qualify for the tournament and who represents the advancement of diversity in the sport.

The PGA Tour media guide is filled with players who list fishing or hunting as their interests beyond golf. Johnson's interests? Golf and Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

"I get more nervous playing the piano than I do golf," he said.

Said Brian Watts, Johnson's longtime friend and former coach at Oregon State: "The kid is special. No doubt about it."

It's a fairy-tale story for a young golfer who before Thursday had only a handful of professional mini-tour events to his credit.

"It's pretty crazy," he said.

Japanese sensation

Calling the throngs following young Ryo Ishikawa a circus would be putting it mildly.

Organizers said about 100 Japanese media members were on hand to document every move of the 17-year-old, who shot a 73. But at times, it felt like more.

As Ishikawa began his first round, photographers rushed for position, even climbing to the top level of the clubhouse.

And at every stop along the way, the crowds -- often four rows deep and growing throughout the day -- gathered around the edges of the holes.

"Obviously any time you get more people out there watching, it's great," said Brendon de Jonge, who was in the same group as Ishikawa and shot a 69. "It's great for the tour and it's great for the game."

In Japan, the swarms are larger, said Katsumi Ishikawa, the boy's father.

At times the marshals couldn't settle the crowd following Ishikawa. The signs asking for quiet often went unheeded. Fans and the media ducked under the ropes around greens hoping to get closer to the teenager.

One older Japanese man bowed as Ishikawa walked to the third hole. Some onlookers didn't bother watching the kid putt and instead jumped to the next hole to snatch the prime spots.

Hours after he finished, Ishikawa was still fielding questions about his round.

What's Bruin

Scott McCarron finished a stroke behind leader Phil Mickelson with a 64. Since his college years at UCLA, he has played at Riviera often and tied for second in 2002.

The conditions, despite being familiar, remain challenging.

"I don't know if the scoring conditions are ever ripe to get Riviera," McCarron said. "This is such a tough golf course, you've got to hit so many good shots, and I was very fortunate."

--

james.wagner@latimes.com

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