HONOLULU – Ryo Ishikawa and Hideki Matsuyama are separated by five months on earth, and five years in professional golf.
Japan’s two biggest golfing stars are members of the PGA Tour this year. They were to play in the Sony Open, the first full event of the year on the PGA Tour, until Matsuyama withdrew on the eve of Thursday’s opening round with a wrist injury.
How they arrived could not be any more different.
One year after their paths first crossed in junior golf, Ishikawa became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup. The “Bashful Prince” received rock-star treatment in Japan and had the largest entourage of photographers. Some players said the hype over the kid reminded them of Tiger Woods when he first turned pro.
He turned pro at 16 and kept piling up the wins on the Japan Golf Tour. He first played in the Masters when he was 17. He played in the Presidents Cup when he was 18. And he shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.
All this time, Matsuyama was moving along at his own pace without hardly anyone noticing.
“I was never tempted to turn pro,” Matsuyama said in an interview last fall. “Ryo did and it’s been good for him. For me, I was glad I went the college route. Back when I was 16 or 17, I didn’t have enough confidence in my game. As it turned out, now was the right time.”
Matsuyama is strong and sturdy, and to see him throw a baseball in a hotel parking lot is to appreciate his athleticism. He first received attention when he won the Asia Pacific Amateur and earned a spot in the Masters. He made the cut. He repeated at the Asia Pacific the following year, won his first professional tournament Taiheiyo Masters) and made another cut at Augusta National the following year.
When he finally turned pro last April, he was on the fast track.
His four wins on the Japan Golf Tour enabled him to be the first rookie to win the Order of Merit. He qualified for the U.S. Open and tied for 10th at Merion. He qualified for the British Open at tied for sixth. His worst finish in a major was a tie for 19th at the PGA Championship.
If there was a rivalry based on performance alone, a case could be made for Matsuyama and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year. Spieth (John Deere Classic winner, No. 7 in the FedEx Cup) ended last year at No. 22 in the world. Matsuyama was No. 23.
Ishikawa was simply trying to get his card.
Whether it was a back injury, relentless attention from the Japanese media and the pressure to play more at home, or simply a steady diet of the toughest competition, Ishikawa failed to keep his PGA Tour card last year. He fell out of the top 100. And he had to go through the Web.com Tour Finals just to get his card back.
“My back was no good,” said Ishikawa, who speaks English with ease these days. “I had a little back injury since last January and February. It was good since July. I can practice more. That was a great experience to play the Web.com Tour Finals. That was huge to have three top 10s in a row. That was a good moment for me.”
He was not bashful about taking a step down if it meant getting back to the top.
A runnerup finish in Las Vegas should secure him a spot in the FedEx Cup playoffs this year. A runnerup finish in Japan enabled him to return to the top 100 (No. 83 going into the Sony Open).
But he’s still a long way from catching up to Matsuyama.
“He was a good player when he was a junior golfer. I met him a lot in junior tournaments,” Ishikawa said. “It’s just timing, you now? I was faster than him. But now we’re in the same place.”
They’re at least on the same tour.
Matsuyama is fully exempt and has a spot in the four majors. Ishikawa, having gone back to the Web.com Tour Finals to get his card, is not guaranteed a spot in The Players Championship, much less the four majors. He has to perform to get those spots.
They remain friends, and Matsuyama hopes to lean on Ishikawa this year. It can be lonely on the PGA Tour, especially with a language barrier. Matsuyama needs a translator to conduct interviews. The Japanese media tend to favor Ishikawa, who carried Japanese golf for much of the last decade and enjoys a more engaging personality.
“I haven’t been able to make much friends yet, but luckily Ryo from Japan is on this tour with me, so I’d like to make friends along with him,” Matsuyama said.
Matsuyama keeps his head down and doesn’t smile as much. That’s just the way he’s built. But it’s been a successful formula, even if he chose to take longer to get to places he always wanted to be. And he is looking forward to another trip to Augusta National as a top-50 player.
“I’m ecstatic I qualified for the Masters through my play this year,” he said. “I’m happy to be in the top 50. Now the real test from now on is whether I can stay in the top 50. It’s a lot easier to get there, a lot harder to stay there.”