Pebble Beach, Calif. – Ryo Ishikawa says he’s learning something new with every round at Pebble Beach. American golf fans, meanwhile, are learning plenty about Ishikawa as he continues to amaze at the US Open.
The Japanese teenager shot even-par 71 in round two Friday, which gave him a share of second place – 1 under par at the halfway point – with Phil Mickelson (66), Ernie Els (68) and Dustin Johnson (70). They trail Graeme McDowell (68) of Northern Ireland by two shots.
Considering the ink on Ishikawa’s high school diploma is barely dry, there will be no shame should the 18-year-old succumb to pressure during his second-round pairing with Els. But the word “pressure” apparently doesn’t exist in Ishikawa’s vocabulary.
“My feeling is ‘go for it,’” said Ishikawa. “Especially in the tournaments outside Japan. It doesn’t mean anything if I don’t challenge myself.”
Ishikawa is a super star at home, where he’s won seven times on the Japan Tour, but Americans may wonder what all the fuss is about. Before his impressive opening round here – dressed head to toe in pink, which made him look like a cross between Elvis and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol – Ishikawa was all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. His best finish in 10 starts in full-field events in the States is a tie for 32nd at this year’s Northern Trust Open. He missed the cut at six of those tournaments, including the last two Masters. His best showing in a major is T-56 at last year’s PGA Championship. This is his first U.S. Open.
By all accounts, and from what I can tell, Ishikawa is a genuinely nice kid. He gets an A for effort with his English, although his answers to questions often leave reporters scratching their heads. His talent speaks for itself.
Ishikawa said he’s enjoying the challenge presented by Pebble Beach. “This course makes me try a lot of different shots that I’m not used to on the Japanese tour,” he said. “ . . . So I’m learning. I’m learning every day.”
Just as he did in round one with a birdie at No. 9 (his final hole), Ishikawa put an exclamation point on his performance Friday with an eye-popping birdie at the 17th, the hole most resistant to scoring through two rounds. Ishikawa hit a towering 4-iron there, the ball parachuting to within eight feet of the hole.
“I like 17,” said Ishikawa, flashing a wide grin. And why not? He nearly holed out from a bunker there on Thursday.
Ishikawa hits the ball exceptionally high, even by professional standards. Tom Watson, who was paired with Ishikawa for the first two rounds – and who made the cut at age 62 – said the youngster’s ball flight could serve him well here.
“You can hit the ball high when you play Pebble Beach because you have to hit the greens (in order to score well),” said Watson. “You have to stop the ball on the greens when they’re hard. That height is a great advantage here.”
Watson was effusive in his praise of Ishikawa’s game, his putting in particular.
“He reminds me of me, when I was 18 years old,” said Watson, who counts the 1982 US Open at Pebble among his eight major titles. “There’s no fear and everything was dead in the back of the hole. He runs it by 5 feet and he makes it coming back. That’s what’s very impressive about him.
“Obviously he’s got the golf swing to go with it and he’s got wonderful touch. Good imagination, too,” Watson said.
However, Watson wasn’t ready to hand Ishikawa the US Open trophy just yet.
“Pebble Beach has a tendency to come back and bite you if you make some mistakes,” Watson cautioned. “It’s hard to learn Pebble Beach in just one time around. There are some shots out there where the ball comes up 20 yards short, or goes way long, that you learn after playing Pebble Beach for so many years. Course knowledge is a big, big thing here because the greens are so small.”
Whatever numbers he posts over the weekend, Ishikawa has made a believer out of me.