NEWS

Ishikawa turns back the clock

By Mitch Vingle
Published on

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- A young man walked across Howard's Creek bridge on Thursday from the golf course to the Greenbrier clubhouse.

No one bothered him. No one seemed to know him. If anything, more golf fans here knew the man discreetly fly fishing the creek below: Sen. Joe Manchin.

"Long walk," said Ryo Ishikawa after finishing on No. 9.

It was not, however, a long walk spoiled, as golfers are wont to joke. See, at the time, the young man was leading the Greenbrier Classic.

At the end of the day, Ishikawa was at minus-6. But if folks here don't know him, those in Japan do. Millions do.

"It's not so huge," Ishikawa said humbly of his following.

It once was indeed huge, though. He was Japan's wunderkind. He was the island nation's prodigy. As an amateur, he won on the Japan Golf Tour at the age of 15 years, eight months, a record. He turned pro in May of 2007 and joined the PGA Tour in 2009.

He's known as "Hanikami Oji" or "Bashful Prince." The Japanese press follows him religiously. But after the initial splash, there have been only ripples. His best PGA finish was a tie for 20th in the 2011 Masters.

On Thursday, though, the prince partied like it was 1999, posting two birdies and an eagle on his way to his back-nine score of 30. (He started on No. 10.) He finished with a 64.

"I got some luckies (Thursday)," Ishikawa said in broken English. "The 11th tee shot I drove way right, like 50 yards right. I just kept it in the fairway on the 10th hole. Then I hit to within 6 feet from 250 to 260 yards ... I got some luckies."

Like Tiger Woods, the tournament's story so far, Ishikawa had been struggling.

"It's better than the last couple months," he said. "I'm just trying to find something positive. Hopefully, this competition will help. But there are still 54 holes to go."

Ishikawa knows he has more than a long walk after a round to go.

"Long week maybe," he said. "I just have to stay patient. Hopefully, I can get it done."

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George McNeill is making quite a name for himself in the Greenbrier Classic. He's played well the last couple of years. And he's made many friends.

McNeill holed his tee shot on No. 18 Thursday for an ace that paid those in the gallery at the time $100 apiece. Resort owner Jim Justice doled out a total of $18,900, according to Classic spokesman Tom Sprouse.

Later, Justin Thomas aced to increase the payout. Justice handed out a total of $173,500 for the second hole in one.

"It was interesting, to say the least," McNeill said. "I don't know what to say about it except there's a lot of luck involved. I made a lot of new friends on No. 18. They were all thanking me and I stole a line from Bubba Watson by saying, 'You're welcome'?"

McNeill, who finished in contention at minus-3, said the shot "kind of got me kickstarted" after beginning play on No. 10.

"We couldn't see it from the tee," McNeill said. "I just heard people yelling and screaming and my caddie looked over and said, 'I think you just won a car!' I said I didn't know. I just high-fived everyone and moved on."

He did not win a car. A $25,000 donation from the Greenbrier, though, will be made in his name to a charity of choice.

There's more to the McNeill story, though. Much more. First, he also recorded a hole in one here last year too, on No. 8 with a four-iron from 219 yards. (Bud Cauley did so on No. 18.) McNeill now has three on the PGA Tour and eight overall.

More importantly, though, is McNeill's return here after a successful but heart-wrenching appearance in the Greenbrier Valley last year.

McNeill finished his 2014 Sunday round with a 9-under-par 61 that vaulted him into second place. He'd done so, however, knowing his sister Michele was ready to pass away.

After the round, McNeill found out she indeed died at the age of 46. Breast cancer had metastasized into her brain and proved fatal that day.

"We just think she went ahead and went to West Virginia and went to [White] Sulphur Springs and was there with him, and it was obvious with his golf," Dottie McNeill, George's mother, told southwest Florida's News-Press at the time. "We can dream, can't we?"

"It's a nice place," McNeill said Thursday. "There are a lot of thoughts walking around here. I'd say it's a little more special than some other places. I try not to think about that and just play golf, but obviously it will always be in my thoughts this time of year."

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It looks as if we'll all have to accept rain will be a part of the Classic's story this year. After precipitation fell Thursday, the forecast for today called for more with a 50 percent shot Saturday and Sunday.

It's a shame after all the work put in by those in White Sulphur. And it's no picnic for the players.

"When you're not used to playing in the rain, in a rain jacket or holding an umbrella all the time, it changes things a little bit," said Brian Davis, who got most of his round in fine.

Ishikawa escaped most of the rain as well.

"I'm pretty happy with that," Ishikawa said. "We got some rain the first couple of holes, but that's it. We played in pretty good weather. It rained, but there was no wind and not too hot or cold. It was very comfortable weather."

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And finally ...

The oddest note of the day.

Each year Paul Moran is the starter on No. 1. By tradition, he announces each golfer's name to the small gallery behind the tee box.

On Thursday, however, there was a loud roar for one golfer: Jeff Overton.

Jeff Overton?

"I don't know," Moran said with a smile and shrug. "The gallery asked me to introduce him as Jeff Terry Williams. I did. Everyone went crazy and he liked it. I don't know why."

So there ya go.

This article was written by Mitch Vingle from The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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