Ryo Ishikawa doesn’t own a crystal ball. Nevertheless, the teenage golf star says he knows where his future is going to lead him.
That someday, on a Sunday afternoon, he’ll arrive at Augusta National and walk among the azaleas, The Big Oak Tree and Ike’s Pond at the pristine course in Georgia.
Then, he’ll tee off on the first hole and later traverse Amen Corner, where Arnold Palmer made so many famous escapes in 1958.
Eventually, with all of Japan watching, he’ll make his way up the 18th fairway to the green, where the year’s previous champion will soon help him slide into an oversized green jacket.
That is Ishikawa’s goal — to win the Masters. It’s what fuels much of his desire, and is a journey he’s always said that one day he’ll successfully complete.
He reiterated as much as he held court before a packed house at a recent event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
“Exactly what the distance between my dream and reality is, I don’t think anyone can ever know,” Ishikawa said through a translator. “But I do know, If I ever lose sight of this dream, then I would probably lose sight of myself. I will lose my sense of identity. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get to my dream, but I know it’s the most important goal in my mind.”
Speaking in soft tones and with thoughtful, measured words, Ishikawa showed poise befitting someone beyond his 19 years.
“What I think is also important is to not only not lose this dream, but to be very careful that subconsciously I don’t change the dream,” he said. “This is the danger that comes especially when things are going well for me. After all, when things are going badly, I can always cling to my dream, remember my dream, and say ‘I have to work harder because I have to eventually win the Masters.’ “
Ishikawa burst onto the scene in 2007 by winning the Munsingwear Open as a 15-year-old amateur. That made him the youngest-ever winner on the Japanese Tour, breaking a mark previously set by the legendary Seve Ballesteros, who won the 1977 Japan Open at 20 years, 7 months.
The media took an immediate shine to the young star. His shy nature at the time only endearing him to the public even more and earning him the nickname Hanikami Oji, or, literally, Bashful Prince.
Ishikawa took Japanese golf by storm in the ensuing years, going on to win nine events on the Japanese tour and the 2009 JGTO money title all before turning 20, which he will do Sept 17. He’s earned an estimated ¥100 million in winnings in each of his last three seasons.
The young star is planning to give back, however, announcing plans to donate his entire winnings this season to the relief efforts in Tohoku in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Ishikawa plans to visit the region in July.
His stature worldwide has grown as well, as he’s increasingly been invited to play PGA Tour events and has competed in all four major championships. His best finish in a major came this year when he tied for 20th at the Masters.
He ended the 2008 season as the youngest player to have cracked the top 100 of the world rankings and was ranked 53rd as of June 5.
In May of 2010, he fired the lowest score ever on a major tour, shooting a 12-under 58 at The Crowns on the 6,545-yard Nagoya Golf Club course.
“I look back on my career as a professional and realize things have gone almost too smoothly,” he said. “I think that’s because I have been so blessed by the support of so many people.”
Now in his fourth year as a professional, the Hanikami Oji moniker no longer fits. Ishikawa’s face is almost everywhere these days, whether he’s golfing or advertising various products on television and billboards.
He’s definitely not shy about drawing attention to himself, often donning large belt buckles and a veritable rainbow of brightly covered clothing on the golf course.
At the FCCJ, he showed a fair amount of media savvy, deftly working around a question about Tiger Woods’ troubles and parrying a query about his own recent struggles — two missed cuts in the last two weeks — with a joke.
“I thought this would be weird if that question didn’t come up,” he said with a smile in response to being asked, ‘What’s wrong and what are you going to do about it?”
Ishikawa has become one of the nation’s most recognizable athletes, his fame eclipsing even that of female star Ai Miyazato in golf circles.
He’s also seen the downside of celebrity, having to apologize publicly on Friday for driving in Japan without a valid license.
But despite having his every move chronicled and attracting Tiger Woods-esque galleries on the course, Ishikawa says he feels no pressure from outside influences.
“I’ve never felt that way,” Ishikawa said. “I’ve never felt any kind of stress or pressure. So when people ask me how I deal with it, how do I fight this pressure, I have to ask myself, ‘Am I fighting something?’ Because I don’t feel that I’m ever battling with any kind of negative pressure.
“What I do say to myself, I’m always thinking ahead, is that I have this shining goal ahead of me which I think of as my dream. And my dream is to someday win the Masters. That’s always the thought at the forefront of my mind. So on the one hand, I have my dream, and on the other hand, I have my everyday situation, the situation I’m in today.”
With Ishikawa, the discussion always seems to venture back to the Masters. He’ll get another turn at Augusta in the future, but the next major he’ll participate in will be the U.S. Open next week at Congressional in Bethesda, Maryland.
No Japanese player has ever won America’s annual open tournament. Hall of Famer Isao Aoki came closest, finishing second to Jack Nicklaus by two strokes in 1980, the best finish by a Japanese player in a major.
The only Asian to win a major title is South Korea’s Y.E. Yang, who in 2009 did the unthinkable — at least at the time — and chased down Woods in the final round to win the PGA Championship.
Yang’s triumph and the success of other Asians such as K.J. Choi, who won the Players Championship this year, gives Ishikawa hope for Japanese golfers.
“This year, of course I’m going to do my best,” he said. “I’m not going to play with the attitude of, ‘I’ll just enjoy the experience and have a great time.’ Rather, I’m going to play with the intent that eventually, maybe not this time, I’m going to win the U.S. Open.”
The native of Matsubushi, Saitama Prefecture, is resolute in his goals, but not in a hurry to reach them. The 19-year-old plans to use his formative years in hopes of being able to compete with the world’s best once he becomes an adult.
That mind-set was ingrained in him by his father at a young age, who helped him understand the real challenges will come later in his career.
For much the same reason, he shrugs off the fact he’s often mentioned alongside young stars Rory Mcllroy and Rickie Fowler, whom he admits is a snazzier dresser, as golf’s next generation.
“After I think about it, I realize there are probably a lot of skilled players who are about my age the world doesn’t know about yet,” Ishikawa said. “They are eventually going to appear on the horizon.
“My goal is to begin to be able to compete with these stars when they become adults and in their mid-30s or so. When I am that age, I want to be able to compete with the Rory Mcllroys and Rickie Fowlers and be able to win.”
One person he hopes to one day match is Woods. The only time Ishikawa really seemed like a normal 19-year-old is when he spoke of his reverence for the 14-time major champion.
“I think he’s fantastic,” Ishikawa said. “I think he is head and shoulders above everyone else. So I very much think he will be able to win another major. I must say, however, much of my reaction comes from the feeling that I want him to win another major as a fan.”
He’s not yet ready to join Woods on the PGA Tour, saying a move to the States is something that requires a lot of thought and would not necessarily get him any closer to his goal of winning the Masters or any other major.
“What I think it’s important to remember is that I have to have very clear goals,” he said. “I have to know exactly what it is I want to do and where I want to do it. I’m very young and although this is a personal decision, I’m very grateful that a lot of professional golfers who are older than me have offered their advice constantly.
“Some people say, ‘You should stay in Japan and hone your skills some more before going off somewhere else.’ Other people say, ‘You should go to the U.S. as soon as possible.’ Right now I’m leaning toward this not being the most opportune time for me to pick up and move to the United States.”
Ishikawa’s content to call the Japanese Tour his home, though he didn’t rule out a future move to the PGA Tour. It’s not important to him where he prepares, as long as it helps him live out his dream scenario at Augusta one day.