Zozo ChampionshipOctober 26, 2019

Ryo Ishikawa, 28 and no longer a phenom, embraces his one-off return to the PGA Tour

Ryo Ishikawa
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesRyo Ishikawa prepares for his tee shot on the ninth hole during the second round of the 2019 Zozo Championship.

CHIBA, Japan — A little more than 10 years ago, a Japanese 17-year-old was golf’s can’t-miss kid. He’d just won his third tournament of the year on the Japan Golf Tour, and in doing so became the youngest golfer ever to crack the top 50 in the World Ranking. He seemed destined to become one of the game’s next superstars.

Fast forward a decade, and Ryo Ishikawa is grateful the superstars still recognize him.

“To see the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day—I was just really happy that they remembered me,” Ishikawa, now 28, said through an interpreter.

Ishikawa’s on the same stage as them at this week’s Zozo Championship, and his back-to-back 68s have him ahead of McIlroy and Day at the halfway point of the first PGA Tour played in his native country—and his first PGA Tour start since the Wyndham Championship in August 2017. The former prodigy is in the field at Narashino Country Club thanks to a strong 2019 season in his home country, having won twice on the Japan Golf Tour to claw back to the verge of the world top 100 at No. 104.

Calling Ishikawa’s career thus far a disappointment would be a bit harsh; he has won 17 professional events, which is no small feat. But given how things started, many figured Ishikawa would be winning majors in 2019, not the Shigeo Nagashima Invitational Sega Sammy Cup.

In 2007, Ishikawa was victorious in the first professional tournament he ever played … as a 15-year-old amateur. He finished 2008 ranked 30th in the world, and in 2009 he earned the ultra-rare special invitation to the Masters. In 2010, he shot a final-round 58 en route to a win in Japan, on the same day McIlroy shot 62 to win his first PGA Tour event.

That was seen as a harbinger of times to come—at the 2010 U.S. Open, McIlroy and Ishikawa grouped together, and The Guardian dubbed the duo the “Jack and Arnie of the post-Tiger era.” Wearing a bright-pink jumpsuit, Ishikawa smashed his rival-that-wasn’t by 11 and played in the penultimate group on Saturday at Pebble Beach. He faded on the weekend to finish T-3, but added two more wins in Japan that year. Things continued to trend upward into 2012, where a second-place finish in the Puerto Rico Open secured a PGA Tour card for the following season.

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That’s when Ishikawa’s momentum halted. A maiden victory on the PGA Tour, the breakthrough that would lead to still more wins (the one McIlroy got out of the way early), never actually came. In total, Ishikawa made more than 140 starts on the PGA Tour but finished no better than that runner-up in Puerto Rico, managing only 11 top-10s.

“I was just really shocked to see how everyone was hitting it so long and so straight,” Ishikawa said of his first impressions of the PGA Tour. “The players who were longer than me were also straighter than me. That sent me on a downward spiral with the driver.”

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Before the Zozo, Ishikawa last PGA Tour start came in August 2017.

He tried to get longer to keep up. It didn’t work. He lost his playing privileges after finishing 175th on the FedEx Cup points list in 2017 and opted to return to Japan.

It has made all the difference. After struggling with a sports hernia and a muscle issue in his back, Ishikawa is finally at full strength this year and winning once again. He won back-to-back starts on the JGT this summer, bringing his career total to 16 wins—just nine away from receiving a lifetime exemption. That’s a target, he says, but not his main one.

“My target is cracking the world top 50, which would get me into the WGCs and the Masters,” he said. “That’s the goal, as well as getting into the Olympics. That would be awesome.”

A good weekend at the Zozo, against the players he used to tee it up against when he was a teenager, would go a long way toward that.

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