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Golf's rising star from the East

From Don Riddell
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ryo Ishikawa is the youngest winner of a major professional golf tournament
  • The 19-year-old is a household name in his native Japan
  • Ishikawa shot a record low score of 58 in a tournament earlier this year
  • He wants to follow in the footsteps of his boyhood hero Tiger Woods

(CNN) -- He is the youngest winner on a major professional golf circuit surpassing the previous record of the legendary Seve Ballesteros by nearly four years.

He is the youngest player to break into the world's top 100 then the top 50, breaking the records of Tiger Woods.

He is the Japan Tour's youngest order of merit winner and banked close to $2 million in achieving the feat.

Now just turned 19, he's a household name in his native Japan, but unless you are a golf fan it's unlikely you will have heard of Ryo Ishikawa, who many claim can match the golfing achievements of his idol, 14-time major winner Woods.

And with Woods now seen as a flawed genius, a shadow of his former self, Ishikawa is in the vanguard of a new generation of young gutsy and iconic stars who are ready to claim his crown.

Europe has Rory McIlroy, America has Rickie Fowler while Ishikawa is Asia's brightest young hopeful, the rising star from the East.

"I don't think I'll see anyone else like this while I'm still alive," says Takehiro Hayashi, the executive director of Japan's Junior Golf Development Association.

A player as talented as this only comes along once every hundred years
--Takehiro Kayashi
Ryo Ishikawa, a marketing man's dream
RELATED TOPICS
  • Ryo Ishikawa
  • Tiger Woods
  • Rickie Fowler
  • Golf

Having spent 40 years identifying and developing talent, Hayashi believes Ishikawa is the real deal.

"A player as talented as this only comes along once every hundred years," he said. Ishikawa first came to prominence four months short of his 16th birthday when his record breaking feats began.

He was given a sponsor's exemption to play in the 2007 Munsingwear Open KSB Cup and bad weather meant he had to play two rounds on the Sunday with a dawn start.

Watched by just a few friends and family when he teed off, Ishikawa stormed to victory with scores of 69 and 66 and his journey to stardom had begun.

He turned professional the following year and has swiftly risen through the ranks to the delight and pride of his nation.

It's hard for anyone to go a day in Japan without seeing him on television or on a billboard where he's either playing golf or endorsing brands like Panasonic or All Nippon Airways.

He travels with an entourage, is pursued by swarms of media and he already has a public museum in which to put all his trophies.

Every week, hundreds of people pay to see them. It's no wonder that his motto is "world, here I come."

If the ambition and the marketing seem arrogant, the young man himself is not.

"I may be famous on the course, but at home I'm just treated as one of the kids.

"Often I feel very fortunate, I feel happy when a lot of fans come to cheer me" Ishikawa told Living Golf ahead of recent tournament in Sapporo.

"I'm not sure I'd call myself a genius, but of course I have worked hard."

That is the very essence of Ishikawa, and also the public perception of him. He's close to his family (he has a younger brother and sister), humble, down-to-earth and ferociously dedicated.

Every day, he spends up to three hours working on his fitness and five more on the range. He's very much a product of the Tiger generation.

Ishikawa, McIlroy and Fowler all play ballsy, aggressive golf and all three dress to be noticed.

Bright orange or sky-blue trousers don't look out of place on the Japanese star, who says he likes to be spotted easily and -- like Tiger -- he wears red on Sunday for his final round.

"I started to play golf because of Tiger Woods, he was sensational and I respect him so much.

I started to play golf because of Tiger Woods, he was sensational and I respect him so much
--Ryo Ishikawa
Japan's rapidly rising golf star

I always dreamed I would play like him and without him, I wouldn't be here today.

"The generation following Woods -- including myself -- needs to contribute to making the golf world even more exciting for the future."

Ishikawa's already doing his bit. This year, on Sunday the second of May, he donned a pair of signal-red trousers and calmly wrote his name into the record books by winning the Crowns tournament in Nagoya.

He beat the field by five strokes for what was his seventh career title, but no-one was counting trophies that day; he had just shot the lowest-ever score on a major tour: 58.

At the time, he said the phenomenal achievement hadn't yet sunk in. He's still at a loss to explain it.

"It was like being in a dream. It was as if the ball and the cup had magnetic powers or it was as if I was controlling the ball by remote control."

However he'd done it, and suddenly the rest of the world began to take more notice.

"I cannot travel on a train anymore and if I go out shopping without a disguise, like a cap, then people gather around me and cause a public disturbance," Ishikawa revealed without a hint of regret.

Ishikawa's emergence is timely. An aging population and the 20-year recession have hit the Japanese golf industry hard.

The golfing community has shrunk by a quarter since 1990, down from 12 to just nine million, but Ishikawa and his female counterpart Ai Miyazato, are inspiring countless youngsters to take up the game.

Hayashi thinks it will radically change the future of golf in his country.

"Since Ishikawa, Japanese golf has hugely recovered. We are greatly blessed."

Tikeshi Kasafuka, whose company PGM Holdings has been buying up bankrupt golf clubs, believes Ishikawa will act as "a trigger" to revive their golf economy.

But golf construction remains virtually stagnant in Japan because there's scarcely much appetite and even less room for any more than the 2350 courses already crammed onto the tiny islands.

Ishikawa's personal future looks considerably brighter, though he believes there is room for improvement in almost every aspect of his game.

He also knows there may come a time when Japan will hold him back.

Typically, Japanese courses are well-manicured and the rough is more for decoration than punishment.

Golf course owners are known for wanting fast rounds and, in a country where honor is so important, golfers prefer low handicaps.

It is in no-one's interests to make the game hard there. But for the moment, Ishikawa is content to play most of his golf at home and has resisted campaigning full-time on the U.S. PGA Tour.

"I don't feel that I need to move to America at the moment, I can still learn a lot more in Japan," Ishikawa reflects, "I may change my mind in the future and if so then I'd like to move without delay."

"No rush"' is the assessment from Ryo's father Katsumi, but a move is surely one day inevitable.

Growing between the rice fields in a rural corner of Saitama is a conspicuous verdant crop.

It's an hour's drive from central Tokyo and is close to the Ishikawa family home and it's Ryo's private practice range.

Dotted throughout are several dense clumps of Kentucky blue grass, a category not commonly found in Japan, and certainly not long enough to lose your ball.

It's from here that Ishikawa practices the shots he'll need to succeed on the PGA Tour.

He's played in nine events in the United States this season, recording one top-10 finish and a tie for 33rd place in the U.S. Open.

Were it not for a disastrous final round at Pebble Beach, he could have been challenging for his first major. He also made an impressive debut in the British Open at St Andrews -- a tie for 27th.

Many golfers visualize their shots, and in Ishikawa's gym -- a pitching wedge from his range -- he is visualizing the future.

He builds up his muscles and his stamina in a room bedecked with glossy posters of The U.S. Masters and its past champions.

Emulating these legends and winning a green jacket is his declared goal.

A giant map of the U.S. is also prominent; destinations like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Orlando and -- of course -- Augusta, have been highlighted.

The map is statement of ambition, but it also reveals a personal conflict. Pinned in the top corner is a family snapshot of Ryo with his younger brother and sister.

They are a close-knit family and his schedule is increasingly forcing them apart.

"If I decide to go to America, I don't know what my parents would say. I have to ask their opinion first, I can't imagine how they would react," he says.

Ryo's father is credited with putting a club in his hand, but he modestly claims to be ignorant of the game.

"I'm not good at it, I don't understand golf very well." However, he heads up his son's traveling entourage and can be seen at tournaments coaching Ryo's swing.

There's no doubt that Ishikawa has made great strides already, but the next step will surely be the hardest.

To be the best in the world, you have to regularly play the best and learn how to beat them.

A move, if and when it comes, will be a cultural and emotional wrench. But one suspects he'll have the will power to see it through, Ishikawa credits much of his success to his patience and his mental strength.

Wandering around his museum in the ski-town of Yuzawa, you get the sense of an already glittering career.

It is a dazzling array of trophies, scorecards, souvenirs and clothing; not to mention a certificate from Guinness World Records.

Almost all of his early family photographs show him holding a club and visitors marvel at his early notes on the game and his first toy plastic set.

The museum was created when he was just 17. The story of Ryo Ishikawa is already being told and the artifacts already being preserved for posterity.

That in itself is incredible, and it's an indication of just how big the story could one day be.