- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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Ryuji Imada was the very picture of a PGA Tour player on the verge.
He owned three career runner-up finishes, including two already this season. He was inside the top 20 on the money list and had established himself as one of the game's foremost short-game wizards.
And so we shouldn't be surprised that Imada, 31, finally found the winner's circle at the AT&T Classic on Sunday. Less than 48 hours later, he sat down on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss his potential Ryder Cup eligibility, moving from Japan to the U.S. at such a young age and just how much the victory in Atlanta meant to his burgeoning career.
Q: Congrats on the win. It's been a few days now. Have you stopped smiling yet?
A: Well, not quite. Except when I'm sleeping, I'm pretty much smiling. My friend threw a party for me last night and I was pretty much smiling all day. My cheeks are still hurting from it.
Q: Before winning, you had three career runner-up finishes, including two this season. After the victory, was there more a sense of excitement or relief?
A: More excitement. You know, I've been close. I've always dreamed of this happening and it's finally happened. It's an unbelievable feeling, especially to do this in Georgia, where I lost in a playoff to Zach [Johnson] last year and had so much disappointment.
Q: What was going through your mind when, in the playoff, Kenny Perry's second shot caromed off a tree and ran all the way through the green, finally finishing in the pond?
A: You know, I couldn't see what happened with Kenny. I got some bad information from a few of the guys who were watching; a few of them said it's in the water, a couple said it's on the green, so we didn't know which one to go with. We finally got the confirmation that it was in the water. I really didn't know what to think, but I just wanted to focus on my game, just to lay the ball up in the right spot, so that I could at least make a par to win the golf tournament.
Q: Had Perry's shot stayed dry, you would have gone for the green, right?
A: Oh, yes. Definitely. I went for it last year out of the deep rough, so I don't see why I couldn't go for it from the shorter rough.
A: No, that's an unbelievable stat, considering it's almost halfway through the year. I could see that happening maybe the first week or so [laughs]. It's always great if my name could be mentioned right behind those two guys. Obviously, I'm doing something great, so yeah, it's just unbelievable.
Q: What's the best perk from the victory? Two-year exemption? Trip to Kapalua? Masters appearance? Big paycheck of almost $1 million?
A: You know, the money is great, but I would say being a part of the PGA Tour for the rest of my life is probably the biggest perk. I'm now a PGA Tour lifetime part-member, I guess. I've always dreamed about playing in the Masters. That's probably the reason that brought me over here. I've always watched the Masters, even when it was on at 6 in the morning in Japan, I've always watched it and I always dreamed about playing there. So yeah, that will be a great experience.
Q: You're also now pretty much a lock to return to Torrey Pines for the U.S. Open, where you finished second at the Buick in January.
A: Yes, but I don't know that the golf course is going to be the same. I think the fairways are going to be narrower, rough is going to be a lot thicker, greens are going to be firmer. So it's going to be a totally different golf course from January, but that's a place I've had some success and there's one guy who plays really well there, but I'm going to go out there and give my best and see if I can do a little better than I did earlier this year.
Q: What was the reaction to your win in Japan?
A: It's been really crazy. The night I won I was on the phone until 1 or 2 in the morning. The next day I was on the radio shows, the TV shows, just calling in. But it's been crazy. I guess I'm the third guy from Japan to win on the PGA Tour, so it's a big deal.
Q: You moved from Japan to the Tampa, Fla., area at age 14. Tell me about that decision process that went into that move.
A: There was not much of a decision on my part; all I wanted to do was come over here and play golf. Yes, my parents I'm sure thought about it a lot, and they were against it for a little bit, but I guess my passion for the game and wanting to come over here and learn about the game persuaded my parents to send me over here.
Q: Have they finally come around? Can you now say, "Look, I was right"?
A: I talked to my dad Sunday night, briefly, but it was very emotional. He thanked me and obviously I thanked them for letting me be here and for their full support. He thanked me back and said that this has been a great ride. We both agree that this has been a great decision.
Q: How did you go from not knowing any English when you first came to the U.S. to becoming fluent?
A: I struggle still a little bit. But I lived with my coach, Rich Able, since I was 15 years old and all we did was speak English, so it made it a little bit easier for me to learn English. I've made a lot of friends over the years and speaking English with my friends obviously helped, too.
Q: You still live in Tampa. Have you considered becoming a U.S. citizen?
A: That's a good question. I did apply for a green card, but I don't even know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't really like to plan ahead. Yes, I do love living here and I do see myself living here for the rest of my life, if I can, but I don't know if I'm going to be a U.S. citizen or not.
Q: Well, you know my next question. I know you said you don't like planning ahead, but if you were to become a U.S. citizen, how would that affect your Ryder Cup eligibility?
A: I think you have to be born in America, so that's another reason why it really doesn't matter for me to change my citizenship. I would love to play on the Ryder Cup team, but that is something that I'll probably never be able to do.
Q: You won a ton of tournaments in junior golf. Back then, did you think it would take this long to reach this place in your career?
A: Like I said, I don't really like to plan ahead. I was the same way as a junior. All I wanted to do was play golf back then. I thought more about my career when I was in college, for sure, and I didn't think it would take this long, to be honest. I thought it was going to be easy -- shoot a good score at Q-school, breeze through, get my tour card and be successful right away. But I missed getting my tour card by one shot coming out of college. I did win my first Nationwide Tour event my first year and again, I thought it was going to be an easy one. I just thought, well, I can just get this over with and I'll be on the PGA Tour next year. But I didn't realize how difficult it is to play all year round. In college, you'll play maybe five, 10 weeks and then you've got a break. Then you'll play one week, two weeks and you've got a break again. And you only play maybe 15 events max. When you turn pro, you're playing 30 events a year, all over the country, all around the world. So that was the biggest change from junior golf to professional golf and that was the hardest to get accustomed to.
Q: How did you come to the decision to play college golf at the University of Georgia?
A: I knew Chris Haack from his AJGA days and I knew him well. When I heard that he took over the coaching job at Georgia, I was just coming out of high school, but I took a couple of years off thinking and wanting to turn professional, but I didn't do that. I had to make a decision to go to college or turn pro after about a year and a half. So I finally called Haacker and asked him if I could come to his school. He was very nice and offered me a scholarship. It was just a no-brainer for me. I knew Haacker from when I was a kid. Looking back, I made the right decision. If I had to do it again, I would definitely go to Georgia right out of high school.
Q: Did it help to hear all that barking from the galleries in Atlanta?
A: Yes, it's always fun to play in front of the Georgia fans, especially last year when I was playing with Troy Matteson, who played at Georgia Tech. There was a good rivalry going there. It definitely pushes you when you hear, "Go Dawgs!" and all of these people pulling for you.
Q: Speaking of the AT&T, any gut feeling where -- if at all -- the tournament will fall on next year's schedule?
A: I don't know when and I really don't care when, just as long as they'll come back and play on that golf course and I can defend my title.
Q: You've played a total of 63 PGA Tour events the last two seasons. With a win under your belt, will you start being more selective with your schedule?
A: I think so. Now I'm going to have a little more choice, as far as picking and choosing my tournament, but I don't think my count is going to decrease. I'm still going to play 28 to 32 events. I may play different events. I may get to play in WGC events more and majors more and not so much the opposite events, but yeah, I'm still going to play the same amount. I've got to strike it while it's hot.
Q: Last question: With a win already and more than $2 million in the bank this season, what's next for Ryuji Imada?
A: To do it again. To get another win. This first win meant a lot to me. I never knew how good winning felt until [Sunday]. I've had some wins on the Nationwide Tour, but it's been a long time since I won. I love the feeling of winning. I've tasted it again and it's an unbelievable feeling, so hopefully I can do it again and get this feeling again very soon.
Q: Ryuji Imada, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.
A: Thank you very much.
Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.