My Sportsman: Ryo Ishikawa

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Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 6. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.

Japanese golfing icon Ryo Ishikawa is my Sportsman of the Year for 2011.

Let's be blunt, it's not for his golf.

Ryo didn't win a major championship in 2011. He certainly didn't finish in the top 20 of a major championship. He didn't even win a tournament this year. In fact, he shot a disastrous 85 in the PGA Championship's first round at the Atlanta Athletic Club in August. This meant he was nearly as many strokes over par (15) as he was old (19). Golf is a cruel game. We know.

Ishikawa also didn't drive very well in 2011. His car, that is.

In June while at home in Japan, Ishikawa was arrested by police for driving without a valid license. Ishikawa acquired a U.S. driver's license and an international permit while staying and playing the PGA Tour from February to April. Since then, he's been frequently spotted tooling around Japan in his silver Audi. After all, it's difficult not to notice Japan's Bashful Prince, the country's flashiest young celebrity.

Japan has a little-known law that requires nationals who acquire international driving permits to stay abroad for at least three months for that license to be considered valid at home. Ishikawa didn't do that. He was not aware of the law. Few non-lawyers were.

His father expressed surprise and remorse. Officials chose not to prosecute because his violation was something of a technicality. But still, it was a bit of an embarrassment for the Ishikawa name in an image-conscious land.

Ishikawa wouldn't be Sportsman of the Year if it was up to the Japan professional golf tour, either. He was recently fined about $30,000 for withdrawing from a pair of events in Kansai and Toshin. He claimed an injured shoulder and produced a doctor's note but the tour has strict rules and, it seems, is a stickler for discipline. "Rules are rules," decreed tour director Andy Yamanaka. "They are put in place to protect the tournaments. They are not rules only for Ryo. Yes, he's a superstar but he is one of 200 members. You should not change rules for one person. We want players to support the Japanese tournaments. Even if Ishikawa plays in America, he will still have to abide by our rules."

Funny, but there's something about ruling with an iron fist that seems so... refreshing.

Yet all those things, including Ishikawa's golfing results, were rendered trivial by the disaster that struck Japan in March. First, there was the earthquake -- a 9.0 tremor felt all across the pacific island.

Then came the impending tsunami, whose devastation was like nothing before captured on video. Cars and trucks were bobbing around in flowing waters like apples in a tub. Entire towns and villages on Japan's eastern coast simply washed away without a trace. Churning waters rose with seemingly evil intent. You surely saw the images; they were unforgettable.

What could be worse? The tsunami badly damaged a nuclear power plant near Fukushima. You know the rest. A disastrous explosion was averted but the leaking radiation wasn't contained. The fallout, no pun intended, continues. The story of Iitate, a small village 25 miles northwest of the reactor plant, symbolizes the sad story of Japan as recounted in The New Yorker magazine. Iitate had been named one of "Japan's 100 Most Beautiful Villages" a year earlier. The village was known for its beef but radiation forced residents to slaughter their cows, almost 3,000 of them. Now standing in front of the village hall is a machine that announces current radiation levels. When last checked, levels were so high that staying in Iatate would be like getting a chest X-ray every 12 hours.

It's a tragedy that continues to unfold.

Ishikawa recently celebrated his 20th birthday, shortly after missing the cut in another tournament. His golf has not been up to his usual standards. Remember, he became a national phenom when he won his first Japanese pro tournament at 15. He added to his lore when he shot 58 in the final round of another victory.

When the tsunami hit back in March, Ishikawa was just a kid of 19. His country had suffered a terrible blow so he did something about it.

He announced then that he would donate all of his golf earnings for 2011 to the Japan relief fund.

Repeat for effect: All of his earnings for the year. In addition, he promised to add more than $1,000 for every birdie he made in 2011. By mid-October, that total was approaching $1.5 million. Granted, Ishikawa makes many more millions in endorsements each year, but no other athlete of similar wealth has ever made a donation even remotely on the scale of what this young man did.

"Japan is in a devastating situation," Ishikawa said in March, via an interpreter. "There are people who have no homes and we don't know how long it is going to take for Japan to recover. I would just like to give my support to Japan."

He did more than that. He gave of his heart and, in 2011, no one had a bigger one. That makes him the true Sportsman of the Year.