Earlier this month, 27-year-old Ryo Ishikawa won his first professional golf tournament in nearly three years.
There’s an unsettling amount of questions to unpack from such a short sentence. Yes, this is the same Ishikawa who, once upon a time, became the youngest player to win a Japan Golf Tour event, as well as the youngest to reach the top 50 in the world. He attained pop-star status in his native Japan and earned the nickname “Bashful Prince” before ever playing in a major championship. He earned a special invitation to the Masters at age 17 and shot a final-round 58 to win on the Japan Tour at 18. He collected nine professional victories in his homeland and made two Presidents Cup teams during his career’s infancy.
During a lull in star power in the men’s game, Ishikawa looked poised to be an international icon.
A decade later, even the most avid golf fans would have trouble guessing Ishikawa’s age, a sign of how much attention he received early in his career. And few golf fans outside of Japan would know where the can’t-miss kid is now. For a handful of years, he played on the PGA Tour with modest success – he made 145 starts, making the cut in about half of those and posting 11 top-10 finishes without winning – but his last season finishing among the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings was 2015. A back injury and mental strain left Ishikawa essentially forgotten.
Another Japanese player had taken Ishikawa’s place. Hideki Matsuyama, who didn’t endure as harsh a spotlight in his teen years, rose to prominence in 2011 when he finished as low amateur at the Masters. Since then, Matsuyama easily has surpassed Ishikawa’s accomplishments by winning five times on the PGA Tour and totaling seven top-10s in majors. The two are the same age but it doesn’t feel like it. Such a transition from one golden son to another brings to mind lyrics Glenn Frey once sang for the Eagles:
Golf isn’t alone among sports in which followers crave the next big thing while ditching the previous iteration, but the game’s inherent mental taxation often doubles for teen prodigies. Some, such as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, become stars, but many share the same fate as Ishikawa.
In 19th holes around the world, Ishikawa is a memory or a trivia answer. In real life, he’s still playing and learning about himself, as any person in his 20s would be. By the time he failed to make it through what then were the Web.com Tour Finals in 2017, Ishikawa admitted that his career outlook had changed with time and pressure.
“I felt suffocated. I wasn’t able to have faith in my technique and skills,” Ishikawa said. “I hope I’ll be able to bounce back from the disappointment and do better in the future … it wasn’t a complete failure. My dream isn’t to secure a card for the PGA Tour. I have bigger dreams for myself now.”
Those dreams have evolved. He maintains that his goal is still to play golf at the highest level – a goal he still appears capable of achieving based on his recent victory in the Japan PGA Championship – but he’s also found a bit of peace. He got married two years ago and says the reason he plays the game now is different than what it was during the onslaught of attention he couldn’t escape.
“My wife is my biggest supporter,” Ishikawa said earlier this year. “I really just want to win a major for her.”
Ishikawa is far from alone in his quest to discover an identity not solely based around golf. Paul McGinley once referred to Matteo Manassero as “the future of the European Tour, just like Seve was,” but the Italian teen prodigy never matched expectations.
He excelled early on, becoming the European Tour’s youngest winner when he captured the 2010 Castello Masters at age 17. He remained in or around the world’s top 50 for four years, but the 26-year-old is lost at sea now. Manassero ranks No. 943 in the world, having missed the cut in 20 of his past 23 tournaments.
“It’s been a really tough time about a lot of things with myself and more technical things,” he said. “There were a lot of downs and some pretty deep ones at that … but it’s something that a person has to face. Being out here, being under pressure and having to perform because people expect you to perform, it just increased the problems even further and that’s what it was.”
Of course it is an inexact science to determine why some players bask in the spotlight and others appear almost traumatized by receiving considerable attention at such a young age. Some will argue it simply is a game of talent and players like Ishikawa or Manassero are regressing to their averages.
But there is something else psychologically at play, an admittedly complex maze. Consider that Ishikawa and Manassero’s teen stardom coincided with the inception of social media, making them among the first golfers to rise to fame more quickly than they might have in the old-media world.
And there also is the lonely nature of the game itself. Researchers have found that team sports are essential for a teenager’s mental development – a recent study by the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living asserts that “team sport involvement is positively associated with social acceptance and negatively associated with depressive symptoms” – but golf and other solitary sports don’t have the same benefits when they are the only game being played. A study delving into specialization in teenage tennis players found that, psychologically, the burden was much heavier for those who specialized from an earlier age. “Junior tennis players who burned out early had less input in their training, higher perceived parental criticism and expectations, and lower levels of extrinsic motivation,” the study reads.
Golf can be similarly harsh on body and mind, so sustaining motivation from a young age is a fierce battle for child prodigies.
We celebrate the exceptions like Woods, McIlroy and Spieth, but their success is more of an indicator of how impressive their mental capabilities are than anything else. When Dylan Frittelli won the John Deere Classic two Sundays ago, he spoke about how he, like many others, savors his anonymity and doesn’t envy what comes with being someone like Spieth.
“He has to change his number every two to three months, so it’s hard to keep up with him,” Frittelli said of his former college teammate. “He’s got his own schedule. He’s got such a busy life. I don’t envy all the stuff that he has to put up with.
“I said to him last year at the (WGC) Match Play, ‘Dude, I’ve just come into this little bit of fame in the top 50 in the world, the stuff that I have to deal with … you do everything so well with the way you handle everything. Like, I really have to congratulate you.’
“He looked at me like, ‘Bro, what are you talking about?’ I was like, ‘You may not realize it, you’re so good with everybody, you don’t let it get to you and you still manage to play top-level golf, so credit to you for doing that.’
“And he was kind of like flummoxed, like, ‘But that’s what I have to do.’ ”
That type of mentality is rare. Physical abilities make a player like Spieth one of the best in the world, but the mental portion is far more impressive. It doesn’t even cross his mind that he could be any other way. All of the responsibilities that come with his fame are natural fits.
The more typical outcome for a teen superstar is far less spectacular. The attention eventually subsides, there’s a next new kid in town, and the former prodigies are left to toil with only a portion of the fame they once had.
It can be easy to talk about these players as failures, but that’s only a label against expectations built on a small sample of their youth. Their brains hadn’t even finished developing by the time they were anointed, a tendency of society that seems more normalized than it should be.
(Top) Ryo Ishikawa at age 15 during the 2007 World Junior Golf Championships Photo: Mike Blake, Reuters
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