Updated: 04/10/2013 6:05 PM KSTP.com
(AP) AUGUSTA, Ga. - Ryo Ishikawa and Rory McIlroy made their Masters debut together, two teenagers in the same group, both filled with potential.
Four years later, they are nowhere near each other.
McIlroy is a two-time major champion who was No. 1 in the world until two weeks ago, and there are signs he has patched his game back together in time for the first major of the year. Among betting favorites at Augusta National, he is second only to Tiger Woods.
Ishikawa didn’t even think he would be at the Masters this year.
The 21-year-old from Japan had to rely on a special invitation for international players to return to Augusta for the fifth straight year. There was even some criticism at home that it was time for the prodigy to prove himself.
"I was surprised," Ishikawa said in a recent interview. "My world ranking is not so high, so I thought I was not coming."
As for the criticism?
"I didn’t look at any Internet news for a while so I wouldn’t know what they were thinking and what they were saying," he said.
Ishikawa has plunged to No. 115 in the world. He won the Taiheiyo Masters late last year on the Japan Golf Tour for his 10th career victory, ending two years without a win on his home circuit. His first full year on the PGA Tour has not gone the way he had planned.
Ishikawa had made only three cuts in nine starts, his best finish a tie for 39th in the Puerto Rico Open, the same week the world’s best players were at a World Golf Championship in Florida. This is the third time he has received an invitation to the Masters, and likely the last. Augusta National tends to look differently at players who join the PGA Tour because they have more avenues to qualify.
It’s time for him to deliver.
"Someday I’d like to win the Masters," Ishikawa said. "I want to be a big player like Rory and Rickie (Fowler) and Tiger."
Woods once raved about Ishikawa when he was winning with regularity as a teenager. He won his first Japan Golf Tour event as an amateur when he was 15, and he won The Crowns in 2010 by closing with a 58, the lowest score on a major tour.
McIlroy thought it was tough when he faced scrutiny for signing a major equipment deal, and walking off the course at the Honda Classic. Ishikawa has dealt with that his entire career, perhaps more than any other player except for Woods.
He speaks to a dozen or more Japanese reporters after every round, no matter the score or whether he makes the cut. Ishikawa sits in a folding chair as he endures questions from two Japanese networks, and then the print reporters. How was your driving? What happened with your putt?
If the attention is wearing on him, he doesn’t show it. He once played 19 consecutive tournaments to appease sponsors in Japan, where golf fans still yearn for the star they’ve lacked since the days of Jumbo Ozaki.
Andy Yamanaka, an official with the Japan Golf Tour, once said Ishikawa was singularly responsible for driving interest in Japan for his play and his model behavior.
"Ryo is the complete package," Yamanaka said in a 2010 interview. "I’m not sure if it was the same situation with Tiger Woods in the U.S. when he was younger, but I’ve never seen anyone like Ryo is terms of his potential as an international athlete."
Ishikawa, who has houses in Las Vegas and San Diego, will return to Japan for the first time this year after the Masters, but not for long. His emphasis this year is on keeping his PGA Tour card.
"Japanese people are watching me all the time," Ishikawa said. "I’m pretty comfortable now to play here all the time. Of course, I’ll go home to play Japanese golf tournaments. The biggest thing this year is to keep my tour card. They want me to be a (PGA) tour player next year."
He has shown flashes of what he can be when playing with Ernie Els in the Presidents Cup two years ago in Australia. They lost two straight matches, and Els insisted on keeping him as a partner. They won their third match, and then Ishikawa beat Bubba Watson in singles.
"He’s a special kid, man," Els said. "He’s got integrity. He’s got the right bits in a youngster that you need. He’s trying hard."
Still, the South African noticed a big burden on the shoulders of such a young player. Ishikawa is rarely without an entourage that includes his agent, girlfriend Yuri, his father, an equipment rep, a chef and his trainer.
"It’s such a long road," Els said. "What am I, 43? And I got my (behind) kicked by the game. I’m a grown man. Imagine a kid who goes through that turmoil all the time. To get into this business, you have to get your priorities straight. I spoke to Ryo when he left the Presidents Cup. I said, `Please stay who you are. Stay the Ryo we know.’ It’s going to be tough."
For Ishikawa, it seems like a career ago when he first played the PGA Tour at Riviera in 2009. Officials had to increase the size of the media center by 50 percent to accommodate all the reporters and photographers. His hair was long and wild, adding to the rock star treatment he received. Ishikawa watches himself on YouTube trying to speak English in that press conference and laughs at how "very slow" he was talking.
That much as improved. He conducted a 20-minute interview in English, none of his handlers nearby.
As for golf, he can only hope better days are coming quickly.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)