KUWANA, MIE PREF. – Even after a winless 2011, Ryo Ishikawa is expected to be the center of attention again on the JGTO Tour because of his ability and popularity as the season begins Thursday with the Token Homemate Cup in Mie Prefecture.
The 20-year-old Ishikawa has at least two goals for 2012: to win his second career money title in Japan and finish in the top 125 on the PGA money list to earn a U.S. tour card for 2013.
“I didn’t win last year, but I put myself in contention a lot of times,” Ishikawa told reporters Wednesday at Token Tado Country Club, the venue of the ¥130 million event.
“I try to think I was just unlucky last year, and I try to think one winless season will help me take a big step forward in my career.”
Ishikawa had won at least one tournament every year since he won the Munsingwear Open in May 2007 as a 15-year-old amateur.
But last year, he ended without a win while recording six top-3 finishes, including a playoff loss to little-known Masanori Kobayashi at the Totoumi Hamamatsu Open in May, in his fourth season as a pro.
“I hope to get off to a strong start tomorrow,” Ishikawa said. “I love this golf course. I finished third here last year. I think I know how to play this course.”
On Sunday upon his return from a missed cut at The Masters, Ishikawa announced his engagement to his girlfriend from junior high school and plans to seek more playing time in the United States next year.
Ishikawa has accepted a special temporary U.S. PGA membership for the remainder of the 2012 season after a runnerup finish at the Puerto Rico Open last month brought his season earnings to $582,471, which is above that of the player who finished 150th on the 2011 money list.
The move allows Ishikawa to play in an unlimited number of events on the U.S. tour.
Asked how his game has changed since exactly a year ago, Ishikawa said, “Now I have a longer contact time between the clubface and ball, and I’ve developed better ball control. And to give myself a fresh feeling, I’m using a center shafted putter this week, instead of the traditional L-shaped putter. I’d like to make positive changes.”
South Korea’s Kim Kyung Tae and Bae Sang Moon won the 2010 and 2011 JGTO money titles, respectively, after Ishikawa became the youngest money list champion at age 18 in 2009.
In 2012, the money title race will be without Bae as he has decided to play mainly on the U.S. PGA Tour after winning a tour card late last year.
Meanwhile, Tadahiro Takayama, the 2005 and 2011 Token Homemate Cup winner who finished second on last year’s money list, also has his own scenario for the new season.
Asked what his goals are, Takayama said, “I’ll try to win one tournament sometime in the season and then go from there. I’ve won at least once in each of the last two years. If I can make it three in a row, I see myself as a consistent performer.”
“If I can achieve that first goal, I’ll be able to go for the ¥100 million mark in earnings, which I narrowly missed last season,” he added. “And then if I can reach 100 million, I should be contending for the money title. I hope one little step leads to great strides.”
Ishikawa and Takayama are expected to face fierce competition from veterans Toru Taniguchi and Hiroyuki Fujita as well as Yuta Ikeda, one of Ishikawa’s greatest young rivals.
“I want to say at the end of this season that I had a great year,” Ikeda said. “I’ve never had that feeling at the end of any year. I want to win five times this season. I want to win one-fifth of the tour schedule (25 events).”
Ikeda won four times each in 2009 and 2010 but had a disappointing 2011 with an 11th-place finish on the money list with one victory.
“I tried a lot of new things in the offseason, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my work will turn out,” the 26-year-old said.