(AP) — Ryo Ishikawa was 9 when he first watched the Masters on television from his home in the Tokyo suburbs.
It turned out to be historic on a couple of fronts.
“I remember it well,” Ishikawa wrote in an e-mail. “I watched Toshi Izawa playing in the 2001 Masters. He shot a 67 on Sunday and tied for fourth place, which was the best-ever finish by a Japanese player in the Masters. So it was very exciting in Japan.”
It also was exciting at Augusta National, for that was the year Tiger Woods won the Masters to complete a 294-day sweep of the four major championships.
No doubt, the 17-year-old Ishikawa remembers him, too.
“Tiger Woods is the player that inspires me the most,” he said before leaving Japan for Los Angeles, where he will make his PGA Tour debut this week at Riviera in the Northern Trust Open. “There are many players from Japan and other places that I look up to, but to me, Tiger Woods is the best.”
Ishikawa said when he turned pro at 16 that his dream was to be the youngest Masters champion. He will get his first chance in April, and possibly three other cracks at a green jacket to supplant Woods.
Whether he becomes the next Tiger, or even Japan’s version of him, remains to be seen. In the two American Junior Golf Association tournaments Ishikawa played as a 14-year-old – the year before he won a Japan Golf Tour event – Ishikawa finished 43rd at Grayhawk and missed the cut at Bay Hill.
Still, he already gets the kind of paparazzi that usually accompanies the world’s No. 1 player.
“Ryo Ishikawa attracts ‘Tiger-like’ attention in Asia, and it will be fun for a U.S. audience to see him for the first time at the Northern Trust Open,” tournament director Tom Pulchinski said when he gave Ishikawa an exemption.
Pulchinski wasn’t kidding.
The tournament already has issued 400 media credentials, up 100 from last year, and the number of credentials for the Japanese media alone is five times higher. Organizers have added 40 feet of space to the working area in the press tent, doubled the size of the dining area and expanded the interview room.
The PGA Tour is doing its part. Media regulations have been translated into Japanese, and the tour has hired an interpreter for Ishikawa. It also assigned an additional media official to work exclusively with Ishikawa – along with the two players in his group.
At least they know what to expect.
Tom Strong wasn’t that fortunate when he was tournament director of the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996. He gave a sponsor’s exemption to Woods four months before the tournament, but he had only one day’s notice that Woods – coming off an unprecedented third straight U.S. Amateur title – would say hello to the world in Milwaukee.
“When he made the announcement he was turning pro, the media center was 20-by-40,” Strong said. “We ended up moving it to a big pavilion. I think there was 300-plus media.”
Now, the teenager phenom referred to as the “Shy Prince” is coming to Sunset Boulevard.
Ishikawa got the nickname because of his youth and his modest demeanor, although one has to wonder how long that will last considering the amount of press that follows his every move.
“I have still not gotten used to it, I guess,” he said. “But I have a great deal of appreciation for it, because it means that the fans care enough about me to name me that, and because many more fans have come to know me because of it.”
Ishikawa earned such fame when he was 15 and won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup on the Japan Golf Tour while a freshman in high school. That made him the youngest winner on a tour recognized by the Official World Golf Ranking.
After turning pro, Ishikawa last year won the mynavi ABC Championship and wound up fifth on Japan’s money list.
Exemptions began pouring in, starting with a letter from the King to the Prince.
“I have been following your achievements in Japan and I am quite impressed with what you have accomplished at such a young age,” Arnold Palmer wrote to Ishikawa, inviting him to play at Bay Hill next month.
Ishikawa also received an exemption to Riviera and to the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook.
He narrowly missed a spot in the 64-man field of the Accenture Match Play Championship – he currently is the third alternate – and he would need a big week at Riviera to qualify for the CA Championship at Doral.
But he has a spot in the Masters, where he will be the second-youngest player in history behind Tommy Jacobs in 1952.
Three weeks after Augusta National invited Ishikawa, chairman Billy Payne and R&A chief executive Peter Dawson announced the new Asian Amateur Championship, to be played this year, with the winner earning a spot in the Masters. The idea was to stimulate even more interest in golf’s fastest-growing market.
“We thought if we could identify good golfers and create heroes who would be emulated by other kids, in the process they would be attracted to the game,” Payne said Sunday.
Ishikawa idolizes Woods, but his first hero was Jumbo Ozaki, who won more than 100 times around the world, never in America.
“He is a legend in Japan,” Ishikawa said. “He is one of the main reasons why golf is so popular in Japan today.”
The Shy Prince is merely carrying the torch, but given the attention on him, he might be able to turn the flicker into a flame.