From Brian Keogh in Los Angeles
The golf world might be on tenterhooks as Tiger Woods makes up his mind on a possible return to action in next week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, but on the practice ground at storied Riviera Country Club, it is the heirs to Woods’ throne who dominate the conversation.
The absence of Rory McIlroy from the field - he was turned down for a sponsor’s invitation weeks before he moved into the world’s top 20 following his victory in Dubai - has been labelled a major mistake by sectors of the American media who are still sceptical about the hype surrounding the Holywood golfer and Mark O'Meara's assertion that he is a better ball-striker than Woods was at the same age.
But while McIlroy prepares for his PGA Tour debut in Tucson next week and works on his game, 100 miles down the coast at the Titleist Performance Institute in Carlsbad, the media circus is in full swing at the Pacific Palisades course where 17-year-old Japanese schoolboy sensation Ryo Ishikawa is preparing to tee it up in a PGA Tour event for the first time.
Known as “Hanikami Ohi,” which means the “Bashful Prince” in Japanese, Ishikawa is so big in Japan that the organisers of this week’s $6.3 million event have been forced to extend the media tent to cope with a five-fold increase in credential applications from the Land of the Rising Sun.
“We had 20 Japanese media accredited last year,” said Damian Secore of Brener Zwikel & Associates, the media managers this week. “This year there are 100 Japanese press accredited because of the interest in Ishikawa.”
Ishikawa mania is full swing in Japan, where he became the youngest winner of a men's regular tournament on the Japan Golf Tour in May 2007 when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup as an amateur at the age 15 years and 8 months, shattering the previous record held by Spain's Seve Ballesteros, who won the 1977 Japan Open at 20 years and seven months. He turned professional last year, winning again on the Japanese tour and is now 67th in the world rankings and heading for Augusta National as a Masters invitee.
He might still be a high school student but his fame has spread as far as the American west coast, where a handful of players looked bemused by the media scrum surrounding the waif-like figure who was launching drives into the net at the bottom of the range, 300 yards away.
“There goes the richest teenager in the world,” said Sweden’s Daniel Chopra, turning to former Walker Cup player Colt Knost and nodding in the direction of Ishikawa as he made his way to Riviera’s driveable 10th hole to hit his first tee shot.
With the full contingent of Japanese reporters, TV crews and photographers following him like a group of super-tourists, Ishikawa unleashed a missile down the 315-yard hole that is regarded as one of the greatest short par fours in golf. But for the heavy overnight rain and the 20 mph wind that was blowing into his face, he might not have come up 20 yards short of the green.
Believed to have signed endorsement deals worth in excess of $10 million, Yonex reportedly spent more than $1 million developing the driver that he uses and in a marketeers dream, Ishikawa told Reuters last month that “the ball feels lighter somehow. It's a strange feeling. I've never hit it so far. I can have a real go at driving 350 yards now.”
When he turned professional, Ishikawa said that his dream was to be like Woods and become the youngest Masters champion and it will be fascinating to watch him in action at Augusta National, where he will be joined by 19-year-old McIlroy.
The Holywood player is the youngest professional to qualify for the season’s first major on merit. Yet some sections of the American media say they will need to see him in action before they can believe the hype.
“If long-time scribes such as myself haven’t even seen you, you can’t be in the top 30 in the world” Jeff Rude wrote in Golfweek the week after McIlroy’s Dubai Desert Classic win.
Graeme McDowell believes the Americans will change their tune next week, when the see the 19-year-old in action at Dove Mountain in Arizona. And with the provisional draw putting McIlroy in line to face Woods in the third round, the new Ulster No 2 doesn’t rule out a surprise.
“You are always going to have your doubters,” McDowell said. “But they aren’t going to doubt for long. They will see next week and there are going to be no more doubters. He is that good. He hasn’t exactly burst onto the scene out here. He had a quiet six or seven months at the start of last year. Maybe there was a little bit of a question mark over his putting early last season but he seems to have rectified that and he’s playing fantastic.”
Comparisons with Woods are impossible for McDowell, who points out that McIlroy had just beaten O’Meara by 13 shots when the American compared him to Woods in Dubai. Still, he reckons McIlroy could beat the world number one if they happen to clash in Tucson.
“Rory v Tiger? It’s the dream ticket, isn’t it,” McDowell said. “I think he’d be a great bet. I think anyone is a good bet in a one off match against Tiger. I think he’s showed he’s gettable in the first round at the matchplay. Thats what makes it such a great event."
From Brian Keogh in Los Angeles