Japanese golf journalists soldier on as crisis back home continues

Tuesday March 29th, 2011
Ryo Ishikawa continues to be Japanese golf journalists' primary focus.
Robert Beck/SI

I have colleagues on the golf beat from Japan, writers and photographers who chase stories like I do. We work in a cramped press tent, grab fistfuls of granola bars, and walk inside the ropes after the best players in the world.

At day's end, they crowd around Ryo and Yuta, I track down Tiger and Phil. The next morning, we do it again.

When the ground shook off the coast of Japan during WGC-Cadillac Championship, much of the tournament's focus was on the Japanese players in the field. I gathered a few quotes translated from Japanese, tweeted them quickly, and went about my business. The death toll grew, the reactors leaked, and I shook my head in disbelief. Then I moved on and tried to set up my sit-down interview with Lee Westwood.

Two weeks passed and I arrived at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill and spotted a reporting acquaintance, Sonoko Funakoshi, and we bowed as we do when we bump into each other at tournaments. I don't know Sonoko well. We have never shared a meal or a car ride, but we have chatted on occasion. Several years back, when Ryo Ishikawa won on the Japanese Tour as a 15-year-old amateur, she called me for perspective from an American golf writer.

This was a huge story in Japan, she said. Ryo Ishikawa, I asked? I don't know who that is.

Sonoko explained who Ishikawa was, told me I would be hearing about him soon. Sure, I thought to myself. Another phenom. I gave her a few quotes and went about my day. At Bay Hill, I saw Sonoko, but I didn't have time to chat. I needed to file a couple of stories for the Sports Illustrated Masters preview and chase down players for interviews. I will catch her later, I thought to myself. I need to meet this deadline.

Bay Hill ended and I headed home to New York, thankful for Wifi and a Delta upgrade. Midflight, I powered up my computer and checked out Time Magazine online. Japan was still one of the top stories. I read on.

"24,000 dead or missing," it read. "2,000 bodies washed up from the sea. 240,000 homeless." I swallowed hard.

The plane landed, I hopped into a cab, and arrived home. I grabbed my cell phone and a Golf Writers Association of America directory. I'm on the board of the organization. Sonoko is a member. I dialed. She picked up.

"Uh, Sonoko, this is Damon Hack from Sports Illustrated," I said. "Look, I've seen you a couple of times since the earthquake, but I've been too busy to really ask how you are doing. I'm sorry. Are you OK?"

Sonoko laughed, nervously, I thought.

"I'm fine," she said. "I had a hard time to make sure my mother in Tokyo was OK. Morning to evening, 16 hours. I just kept calling and calling."

Finally, she got through. Her mom was fine. I asked Sonoko about the fate of other Japanese golf writers and photographers -- there are dozens -- and learned that many live in the states during the PGA Tour season and only return to Japan intermittently. Sonoko lives in Los Angeles.

"Most of them are OK and their families are OK because they are from Tokyo," she said. "But some people sent their children to the southern part of the country because they are worried about [contaminated] water."

I asked her if the journalists will be returning to Japan soon and she said not for a couple more weeks. She told me they needed to stay in the states through early April, to keep snapping photographs and writing stories.

"They cannot go back to Japan until the Masters is over," Sonoko said. "They are here for eight weeks, starting with the Northern Trust."

They are following the fortunes of a rising Japanese star on his eight-week American sojourn, she explained.

His name is Ryo Ishikawa.

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