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Ishikawa scoops award

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Golf sensation Ryo Ishikawa received a huge present on Christmas Day and flashed his signature bashful smile one last time before the end of the year.

A 17-year-old first-year pro, Ishikawa won the athlete of the year award at the Japan Professional Sports Grand Prize ceremony at a Tokyo hotel on Thursday evening.

Ishikawa is the youngest athlete to ever win the award, topping (current Boston Red Sox pitcher) Daisuke Matsuzaka, who won it at the age of 19 when he played for the Seibu Lions in 1999.

“I became on a par with professional athletes in January, but I never thought that I’d be able to win an award like this,” said Ishikawa, who turned professional this year and quickly gained success as he earned his first pro win in November and finished fifth in the JGPA money rankings, becoming the youngest golfer to earn more than ¥100 million.

“Yet this is the result of my efforts and I’m so pleased that people accepted me for it,” he said.

The Japan Series baseball champion Seibu Lions, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ 21-game winning pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and sumo yokozuna Hakuho won the outstanding performance awards, while ex-Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh, Seibu skipper Hisanobu Watanabe, Asia Champions League soccer champion Gamba Osaka and comeback tennis player Kimiko Date-Krumm were given special awards.

“As one of those who is related to professional sports, I know the weight of this award, so I’m very honored,” Watanabe said.

“We, Seibu, just kept running since the spring not thinking too ahead. And it resulted in winning all in the regular season, Climax Series, Japan Series and Asian Series.”

Meanwhile, Hakuho carried out his responsibility as grand champion of sumo, while the national sport of Japan faced major crises such as marijuana use by Russian wrestlers and the absence of fellow Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu.

“It was a year that I can be satisfied with,” smiled Hakuho, who won four tournaments out of six in 2008. “Hopefully, I can win the grand prize year next like Ishikawa.”

Eighteen-year-old Kosei Miura, who broke Yutaka Take’s record of 69 wins in a year as a first-year jockey in Japan Racing Association history, was selected for the best rookie award.

“I didn’t break the record by myself but with my supporters. I’d like to get on a roll under the influence of this next year, too,” Miura said.

Finishing fifth on the money ranking was beyond Ishikawa’s imagination, he said. But when asked what kind of year he wants to have in 2009, Ishikawa, who was handed the certificate by Prime Minister Taro Aso at his official residence earlier the day, answered with a decisive tone.

“I’d like to win as many as I can,” he said. “There is no offseason for me. I’d like to keep myself in good shape always and play a good game.”