CHIBA, Japan, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Ryo Ishikawa has yet to live up to the hype that greeted his emergence on the scene more than a decade ago, but a recent resurgence suggests it is too early to write off a player who once carried the hopes of an entire nation on his slender frame.
Ishikawa, his aching back feeling better at long last, has won twice on the Japan Tour this year and is third on the money list, his highest ranking since 2010.
Though he has been eclipsed by Hideki Matsuyama, now clearly Japan’s top player, 28-year-old Ishikawa remains a fan favourite in a country yearning to finally produce a major champion.
Nobody is happier to see Ishikawa back in form than his long-time on-and-off caddie Simon Clarke, who describes working for the player in front of an army of fans in Japan as almost a mystical experience.
“When he plays well in Japan it is like witnessing a Biblical event every time,” Clarke told Reuters on Tuesday ahead of this week’s Zozo Championship at Narashino Country Club.
“Watching him rise again has been wonderful. The people come for him and they adore him like a God.”
Ishikawa was ranked as high as 29th in the world nine years ago, but had fallen precipitously all the way to 300 by the middle of this year.
Plagued by a bad back, Ishikawa’s efforts to make his mark on the U.S.-based PGA Tour came up short. He notched a pair of runner-up finishes during his 145 career starts but lost his card in 2017.
Now back playing full-time in Japan, a minor league to be sure, he nonetheless has a chance to regroup for another tilt at the big time.
After winning back-to-back tournaments mid-year, Ishikawa is close to returning into the top 100 in the world, and will get a chance to test his game against the game’s best this week in the first official-money PGA Tour event in Japan.
“I was swinging the club feeling worried about how my lower back was going to be, but I trained hard up until May this year and it’s starting to get better,” he said on Tuesday.
“I feel very good about my physical condition now and I can swing the way I want to swing.”
Ishikawa was a precocious 15-year-old amateur when he first won on the Japan Tour in 2007, and he has now racked up 16 tour victories, shooting a round of 58 along the way.
Though there have been lean times as well as good, major sponsors have kept the faith during his ups and downs, with blue chip companies Casio, Callaway, Asahi beer and ANA among those paying him to endorse their products.
“He’s like a wizard who knows the magic is in his 14 wands but doesn’t always know how to get the magic out of them,” said caddie Clarke. (Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Alison Williams)