As 10 players sat within three shots of his lead to start the day, Shigeki Maruyama likely didn’t feel too comfortable teeing off on Sunday at the Crowns, one of the most prestigious events on the Japan Golf Tour. Among the group breathing down the three-time PGA Tour winner’s neck were future top-35 players Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Yuta Ikeda, at the time aged 20 and 24, respectively.
Far less of a concern was 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who started Sunday in a tie for 18th place. He had shot rounds of 68-70-71 at the par-70 Wagō Course at Nagoya Golf Club. When Ishikawa teed off 11 groups in front of Maruyama on Sunday, he was just looking for a solid round, maybe a top 10. But by the time he reached the 12th hole, the tournament was over.
Ishikawa had birdied Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11. After parring 12 and 13, he went on another run, birdieing 14, 15, and 16 en route to a 58 and a five-shot victory.
For four hours on May 2, 2010, Ishikawa’s blazing talent burned at its brightest. It was his seventh Japanese victory, and he wouldn’t turn 19 for another four months. His future in the game seemed secure. But today, exactly 10 years later, Ryo Ishikawa is still trying to recapture the greatness that, at one time, came so easily to him.
While the numbers 18 and 58, his age and score, introduced Ishikawa to golf enthusiasts around the world, he had long been the darling of Japanese golf.
Three years prior, as a 15-year-old amateur, he received a sponsor exemption to the 2007 Munsingwear Open KSB Cup on the Japan Golf Tour. After Ishikawa opened with rounds of 72-69, a rain delay washed out Saturday, forcing all players to complete 36 holes on Sunday. Unfazed by the early wakeup call, the rookie shot 69-66 and won his first professional start.
For the next three years, Ishikawa blitzed the Japan Golf Tour, winning once in 2008, four times in 2009, and three times in 2010. In 2009, Augusta National extended the Japanese star a special invitation, making him the youngest professional participant in the history of the Masters.
Ishikawa also picked up some team competition experience, playing in the 2009 and ’11 Presidents Cups. In ’09, Greg Norman rolled out his rookie captain’s pick in all five matches in 2009 at TPC Harding Park, and Ishikawa responded with a solid 3-2 record. After qualifying on points in 2011, he went a respectable 2-2.
At this point, Ishikawa had become the youngest player ever to crack both the top 100 and the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. The hype surrounding him in Japan was less like a runaway train and more like a supersonic jet. Yet despite his growing résumé, there were already reasons for concern.
Ishikawa at the 2011 Presidents Cup
After 36 holes at the 2010 U.S. Open, the 19 year-old was T-2 and had dusted fellow superstar-to-be, Rory McIlroy, by 11 shots. But a disastrous Sunday 80 sent Ishikawa tumbling to a T-33 finish. This became his tendency at the sport’s biggest events.
Whenever Ishikawa faced top competition in America, his game wavered. In his 20 major championship starts, all of which fell between 2009 and 2015, he made only eight cuts and posted one top 25.
It’s no surprise that the young player gripped it a bit tighter at majors. Early in his career, Ishikawa faced crushing media pressure in his home country. After his first pro victory, the 15 year-old suddenly found himself at a photo op in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s executive office. Weeks later, Ishikawa played his final round at the Kanto Amateur Championship in front of more than 3,000 spectators. The same day, the Tokyo Broadcasting System tried to plant a hidden microphone on one of his playing partners to sneak a recording of the teenager’s voice. After every round, the Japanese press enveloped Ishikawa, pumping him for explanations of each of his on-course missteps.
Adding injury to insult, Ishikawa’s physical health began to fail him. A lower-back issue before the 2013 season was the first of many maladies that would plague the young star in the years to come.
The more restricted the movement of his swing became, the more his ball-striking suffered. Getting off the tee became a recurring nightmare. Never particularly long, Ishikawa also became inaccurate. From 2013 to 2015, his Strokes Gained: Driving rank on the PGA Tour slid from 78th to 148th to 168th.
While he continued to find success in Japan, Ishikawa struggled in America, posting only 10 top 10s on the PGA Tour, the most recent at the 2015 Quicken Loans Invitational. Soon, Ishikawa’s struggles followed him back to his home country. During an almost three-year period from August 2016-July 2019, Ishikawa didn’t win a single time in Japan and found himself, for the first time, deep in the wilderness of professional golf.
Recently, somehow, he found his way out. In the last five months of 2019, Ishikawa won three times on the Japan Golf Tour. He’s back inside the OWGR top 100. Whether he can return to global stardom remains to be seen. His driver remains somewhat balky; in six measured rounds on the PGA Tour last fall, he averaged a healthy 313 yards but lost almost a full stroke to the field off the tee per round.
After all of these years, Ishikawa has retained his status as a quasi-deity in the eyes of Japanese fans. Longtime on-and-off caddie Simon Clarke told Reuters in October 2019, “When he plays well in Japan it is like witnessing a Biblical event every time. Watching him rise again has been wonderful. The people come for him and they adore him like a god.”
Whether they know it or not, American golf fans are ready to embrace Ryo Ishikawa, too. His move calls to mind those of Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott. It isn’t just technically sound; it possesses a rare, syrupy flow that makes you want to watch it on loop.
It can be hard for non-English-speaking athletes to connect with American fans through a translator. Ishikawa, however, made an effort early on to speak English in interviews outside of Japan, and he now speaks the language very well. This factor, combined with his flashy game and amiable charm, makes him appealing to U.S. fans and sponsors alike.
Ishikawa is currently charting a unique course. Like many other hype-fueled phenoms, he didn’t live up to early expectations, but he also didn’t burn out like Ty Tryon or vanish like Anthony Kim. With 17 Japan Golf Tour wins to his name, Ishikawa is hardly a bust.
If anything, he stands as a reminder that for even the most talented players, immediate success is not a guarantee. Vijay Singh won 22 times after turning 40. Ishikawa, meanwhile, hasn’t yet turned 29. Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to the growth and development of young golfers.
While the tribulations of the game have forced the one-time prodigy to bend, he has always refused to break. Younger than Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, and Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa may still have his best years ahead of him.
Michael Geiger is a rising senior at the University of Minnesota. When he’s not playing golf, he’s either writing about the game or thinking about taking his clubs to a pawn shop.
This article is part of The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series, which focuses on golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.