By JAYMES SONG
AIEA, Hawaii – Ryo Ishikawa is nicknamed the “Shy Prince” in his native Japan, where the bashful 16-year-old star has been crowned the savior of men’s golf.
It’s a daunting responsibility that Ishikawa says is difficult to fathom, let alone try to achieve.
“However, even if one person believes I can do it, I will try my best,” he said through an interpreter.
Ishikawa became an overnight celebrity last May when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup at age 15, making him the youngest winner of a Japan Tour event. Since then, stories and images of the fresh-faced teen have been splashed across Japanese newspapers, magazines and TV shows.
He made Japanese golf history again last month by becoming the youngest player to turn pro. On Friday, he will make his second start as a professional at the Pearl Open, where he finished 13th last year.
Last year, he played in the event as an unknown with no one following him around. This year, he has more than three dozen members of Japanese media following him around every hole at Pearl Country Club and capturing every smile.
In Japan, his galleries are always the largest. At the Dunlop Phoenix in November, defending champion and British Open winner Padraig Harrington played in relative obscurity while Ishikawa had a huge following.
Shoichi Ito, editor for Japanese golf magazine Par Golf, said it’s more than his golf that makes him so popular.
“It’s his personality. He’s fresh, well-liked, very polite,” Ito said. “He’s good at answering questions. In a way, that’s hard to believe he’s only 16. It’s also his looks. He’s very popular and so the media keeps highlighting him.”
The Japan Tour had been starving for attention and a young superstar. Women’s golf, meanwhile, has been gaining popularity behind rising stars such as Ai Miyazato and Sakura Yokomine.
Ishikawa said the best part of being famous is bring attention to the sport of golf. The worst part is, he can’t go shopping any more without being mobbed by fans.
He has a big, fluid swing and shows maturity on the greens. His golf game is more developed than his English, which he is also working hard at.
“I think that media is very important because thanks to them, golf is known in the world more,” he said in his only full sentence in English.
Ishikawa, who reportedly has signed multimillion dollar sponsorship deals, said he wanted to turn pro to help advance his game. After winning the Munsingwear Open, Ishikawa played in seven Japanese events with his best finish was a tie for 15th at the Fuji Sankei Classic.
“My goal has never changed being an amateur or professional,” he said. “I want to be better and better.”
If Ishikawa kept his winnings from the eight events last year, he would have earned more than $220,000 and finished 38th on the money list.
With the media spotlight on him constantly and a nation watching, it won’t get any easier.
Ishikawa doesn’t have to look very far for examples.
Hawaii has a history of teens who have turned pro then struggled, such as Michelle Wie.
Tadd Fujikawa turned pro at age 16 a few months after winning last year’s Pearl Open. He has missed the cut nine times since then.
Wie and Fujikawa, however, face much stiffer competition on the U.S. tours.
Ishikawa also has dreams of playing a few events in the United States one day. His goals are to win the Masters and play against Tiger Woods.
Until then, Ishikawa is busy being a high school student, a pro golfer and a teenager.
Ishikawa was spotted Wednesday running around the fairways, jostling with his two high school buddies, who are also in the tournament.
On his way to Pearl Country Club, he called to make sure the restaurant was still serving loco moco, which consists of white rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and smothered in brown gravy.
“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “My mind is refreshed and clear. I’m ready for this tournament. I’m not worried about anything.”
He didn’t guarantee a win, but said he’s confident in himself. He was confident enough to wear bright pink pants with brown stripes during Thursday’s pro-am.
Ishikawa will be paired with Billy Hurley during the first round. Hurley played in seven PGA Tour events last year, along with three Nationwide tournaments. He lost a playoff for the final qualifying spot at last month’s Sony Open.
Despite being only 16, Ishikawa won’t be the youngest in the event.
Yuto Soeda, 13, of Japan qualified with a 74. Cyd Okino, a 14-year-old girl from Honolulu, also is entered.
This tournament is known for giving youngsters a chance to shine. Tournament officials gave Wie a chance when she was 12.
The winner of the 54-hole event will earn $12,000. Ishikawa already knows what he would do with his first tournament paycheck.
“Buy souvenirs for my friends,” he said.