At halfway mark, Ishikawa impresses

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The ball soared high into the cool, gray sky, lost against water that separates an iconic piece of property from his homeland.

Ryo Ishikawa's shot to the 17th hole on Friday afternoon first turned heads, then had them shaking. The ball finally fell from the air and stopped 4 feet from the cup. Ishikawa had not only hit an impossible green at Pebble Beach Golf Links, he gave himself a birdie putt.

"It's like the ball went over the moon," said Mark Long, the veteran caddie for Fred Funk, whose group was waiting on the tee as Ishikawa, Rory McIlroy and Tom Watson played. "It was pretty sweet. What a weapon."

Watson smiled that sly, knowing smile.

"You have to hit that shot here," said the Hall of Famer, who famously won his only U.S. Open at the same par-3 hole 28 years ago. "That's the shot I used to play there. ... when I could play it. I tried my moon shot there with a 4-iron, I thought the wind was a little behind us, and it came up 20 yards short."

Ishikawa also hit a 4-iron, his setting up a birdie putt that he converted and left him just 2 shots out of the lead in his first U.S. Open. Watson, 60, might very well be playing in his last, which made the pairing all the more significant.

Watson laughed when he noticed that he would be in the same group for the first two rounds of the 110th U.S. Open with Ishikawa, 18, and Northern Ireland's McIlroy, 21. Their combined age falls 21 years behind Watson. Neither was born when Watson won the 1982 U.S. Open here.

"They could be my grandkids," Watson said.

The duo is almost universally regarded as the future of golf. On the same day last month, they won tournaments by shooting remarkable final rounds -- Ishikawa a 58 to win The Crowns tournament on the Japan Golf Tour, McIlroy a 62 to capture the prestigious Quail Hollow Championship on the PGA Tour.

McIlroy had a tough U.S. Open, missing the cut after shooting a second-round 77. But Ishikawa was impressive, shooting a hard-fought, even-par 71 that included birdies at two of his last four holes to finish 36 holes at 141, 1 under par.

That left him 2 strokes behind 36-hole leader Graeme McDowell and in a tie for second place with Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson.

A victory would make him the youngest player to win a PGA Tour event and the U.S. Open, surpassed in major championship history only by Tom Morris Jr., who in 1868 captured the British Open at age 17.

Ishikawa has won seven times on the Japan Tour and was the youngest to do so at age 15 in 2007 when he was still an amateur. He turned pro a year later and has received a handful of invites to PGA Tour events, with little success. So far this year, his best finish is a tie for ninth at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, which means he made it to the final 16. He missed the cut at the Masters.

Last year, Ishikawa won four times in Japan and became the youngest player to ever compete in the Presidents Cup, where he went an impressive 3-2, with a Sunday singles victory over Kenny Perry.

"He's extraordinary," said Els, 40, who has won two U.S. Opens -- the last of which came when Ishikawa was 5 years old. "He played in the Presidents Cup last year and I really got to know him well there. He's a great kid. It's amazing that he's only 18. He already shot 58 this year. Just think about it, shooting 58 on the tour over there at 18. It's phenomenal."

Ishikawa will be playing in the third round Saturday alongside Els.

This kind of success, of course, produces unprecedented media attention at home. Among those following Ishikawa Friday was Isao Aoki, a former Japanese star who battled Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open and now does television work. Dozens, if not hundreds, of photographers and journalists follow every move.

"I don't see how he does it," Watson said. "It's a constant din."

"It's worse for him at home," said McIlroy. "I've played with him in Japan and he handles himself very, very well. That's one of the most impressive things about him, how he handles everything, apart from his golf."

Known in Japan by his nickname "Hanikami Oji" -- which means "Bashful Prince" -- Ishikawa is already awash in riches due to his stardom. He has signed numerous endorsement deals, lives just outside of Tokyo, and has his own private practice range about 5 minutes from his home.

But yet another reminder of his youth, Ishikawa is not yet licensed to drive in Japan, where the minimum age is 18 and due to a hectic schedule, he simply has not been able to get the necessary approval.

Then again, Ishikawa can afford a driver -- and a manager and a trainer and sometimes even a chef to travel with him.

And he's getting better at speaking English. Ishikawa does myriad interviews after a round, first for Japanese television, then the regular assembled media with a translator, then again with Japanese media only.

During his session with English-speaking journalists, it was clear that Ishikawa could understand most of the questions. And he often did a fine job of answering them.

"I don't know if it's the right word, but my feeling is to go for it," he said. "It doesn't mean anything to me if I don't challenge things."

He missed the cut at the Pebble Beach PGA Tour event in February, due mostly he said to his troubles on the greens. You'd never know that was an issue this week.

"The first thing I like is his putting," Watson said. "He reminds me of me when I was 18 years old. There is no fear, everything was dead in the back of the hole. He runs it by 5 feet [but] he makes it coming back. That is what is very impressive about him. Plus he's got a golf swing to go with it and wonderful touch."

Whether or not he can withstand the pressures of a major championship will be determined over the next two days. It was Watson who pointed out that Pebble Beach has a tendency to come back and bite you, that the course knowledge Ishikawa lacks is crucial.

"Preparation is so important," Watson said.

But so is skill, something that Ishikawa put on full display at the 17th.

"He hits the ball very high. And you have to do that on these greens to stop them when they are hard," Watson said. "That height is a great advantage here."

Over the course of their two rounds together, Ishikawa and Watson had the chance to chat occasionally, and leaving a huge impression on the Japanese star were the loud receptions the Hall of Famer received at every green.

And it could have gone without saying what Watson told Ishikawa after their round Friday.

"Today Tom said to me that I will have a good future."

That future might already be here.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.