Japan's superstar Ishikawa could be the difference in Asia's bid to topple Europe in Royal Trophy
15:48 GMT, 15 December 2012
The first thing that set Ryo Ishikawa apart from the other golfers at the Royal Trophy, Ryder Cup stars and all, came during the tournament’s opening ceremony.
Each player was introduced to polite and respectful applause. Then came Ryo, and suddenly the room was not filled with dignitaries and journalists but squealing teenagers.
Ishikawa attracts a fanatical following from his homeland of Japan wherever he plays across the globe. Whenever he takes to the course there are as many photographers as paying spectators following his every move.
Eyes on the prize: Ishikawa struck two outstanding shots in the fourballs
Young, squeaky clean, good looking but entirely unthreatening… as a colleague here in Brunei put it, Ishikawa could well be described as the Justin Bieber of golf.
But, like when asking anyone over the age of 16 what their favourite Bieber song is, mention Ishikawa and most golf fans’ faces will turn blank.
To be fair to Ryo, his music does not make a proportion of the public want to pull their own fingernails out. Although it must be said we’ve never heard him sing. Let’s keep it that way.
So what’s all the fuss about Well, apart from the boyband looks, he donated his earnings on tour in 2011 to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief fund, plus an additional 750 for every birdie he made during the year. So he’s a nice boy – but is he a top-class golfer
The Ishikawa frenzy erupted when he became the youngest ever winner on the Japan Golf Tour aged just 15. Now 21, Ryo has won another 10 titles but only last month ended a barren run of two years without a victory. He has also never made his presence felt at any of the major championships, beyond the sizable boost to the local economies provided by the ever-present, and ultimately disappointed, throng of Japanese tourists.
Joining the scrum following Ishikawa during his fourball match at the Royal Trophy on Saturday, there were encouraging signs early on.
Up for grabs: The Royal Trophy was on display as Ye Yang tees off
A wedge approach into the par-four first was accompanied by a long, posed follow-through – the equivalent of the ‘save for the cameras’ in football – as the ball flew straight at the flag and stopped four feet from the pin.
Ishikawa is known as ‘the Bashful Prince’ back home, but this was a showman working the crowd in a way the rather arrogant Prince, of musical fame, would approve.
But it was not to last. The putt shaved the hole leaving Ishikawa flabbergasted. A stunning approach to the fifth was a rare highlight in a round consisting mainly of piercing drives but sloppy iron play.
Despite being 50 yards longer off the tee than one of his opponents, Francesco Molinari, he was unable to match the two-time Ryder Cup veteran’s precision into the greens.
Then he started to falter off the tee too, splashing down in the lake with an ugly slice on the eighth, and began to find fairway bunkers with ease.
As Duran Duran might have sung, his name is Ryo and he likes playing from the sand. Ishikawa and fellow Japenese Yoshinori Fujimoto found themselves two holes down to the Molinari brothers at the turn and wilting in the stifling tropical heat.
All looked lost, but Fujimoto had other ideas. Sleeves pulled up, in the manner of Andy Roddick, over his impossibly square shoulders, he started firing at pins and sparked life back into the contest. And then, the moment we’d all been waiting for.
Raptures: Ishikawa received a warm reception in the opening ceremony, a much louder applause than Ryder Cup stars such as Miguel Angel Jimenez
With his playing partner in trouble after driving towards the beach on the 549-yard long 15th, an under-pressure Ishikawa launched a lusty blow off the tee before firing a laser-guided missile into the green. His ball finished nine feet from the pin and the putt was sunk for an eagle three, the first of the week on any par-five here.
The fire was lit in Ishikawa’s belly and he followed that with another belter into the green at the short 16th.
Fujimoto’s birdie meant he did not need to complete his own near-certain two. After finding sand off the tee on the 17th, he blasted his approach out of the bunker to 10 feet. The Molinaris missed longer birdie putts and the match was over, the Japanese winning three up.
It wasn’t the most polished performance and it remains to be seen whether he can succeed under such an intense media glare. Helping Asia to come from a point behind and beat Europe in Sunday’s singles here may also be beyond his powers.
He takes on Henrik Stenson tomorrow.
But with two of the most fabulous blows you will ever see in any golf tournament across the globe, this young superstar won a new admirer.
If Ishikawa really is the Justin Bieber of golf… then I’m a Belieber.