Big Fish Most Americans had never heard of Carlos Franco until his first Tour victory, last week in New Orleans, but his name has long been spoken with pride back home in Paraguay

May 16, 1999

Carlos Franco is home, and he is happy. He's in the middle of a
three-week break after the Masters, in which he tied for sixth.
He doesn't know, of course, that when he returns to the Tour, to
play in the Compaq Classic in New Orleans, he will win, set a
tournament record and play brilliantly, although he has an
inkling. At home, in Paraguay, he's the king of the world. When
he leaves home, there's bound to be some carryover.

"You like my country?" he asks you. There's a barefoot boy
walking a cow along the side of the road. Two decades ago that
boy could have been Franco, except that his family was too poor
to own a cow. Today the golfer is driving a Toyota 4Runner. He
had other options.

You tell your host his country is beautiful. "It is very
beautiful," the golfer says.

Your host does not pause. Not for the cow, the boy, the oncoming
traffic or the numerous potholes on this mostly paved road on
the outskirts of Asuncion, Paraguay's largest city. Carlos
Franco--Carlitos Franco, if you want to use the name he
prefers--is wearing a seat belt and singing background vocals to
a song playing in the car's tape deck. The song, recorded by a
local band, is about the most famous golfer in Paraguay. (It was
not a hit, except in the Franco home.) When the golfer's name is
mentioned, he raps you on the knee with the back of his fingers
and laughs. Carlos Franco!

"Drink this tea, this special tea," he tells you, handing you a
cow's horn fashioned into a mug with a straw made of silver
inserted through a layer of herbs.

"Is it good for your...?" you begin to ask the golfer. By
Franco's judgment, there are stimulants for the male libido in
just about every dish, fruit, dessert and beverage in the
Paraguayan diet. Amazingly, Franco has just two children.

Your host cuts you off, mid-question. "Si, my friend," he says.
He is grinning maniacally. "Si, si."

To be home! Or, as Franco would say in his native Spanish,
"¬°Estar en casa!" To ply his trade, Franco is required to leave
not only his house but also his hemisphere. For five years he
played the Japanese tour and played it well, winning five times.
Last year he was on the winning International team in the
Presidents Cup. Since January he has been playing the U.S. Tour.
He is 33 and a PGA Tour rookie who is ranked 38th on the money
list.

Correction: He was ranked 38th on the money list after the
Masters, in which he earned $125,200. Then came the three-week
break. He fished. He ate. He danced through the night and into
the wee hours with his wife, Celsa. He kicked around a soccer
ball with his two boys, Carlos, 10, and Alcides, eight. He
played seven holes of golf (and hit maybe 40 practice shots).
His ranking fell to 47th. He was not worried, though. Far from
it. He returned to the Tour last week for its New Orleans stop
at English Turn Golf and Country Club. He won, by two strokes
over Steve Flesch and Harrison Frazar, making a series of
big-time shots down the stretch, from the rough, from bunkers,
sometimes even from the middle of fairways. He set the
tournament record by shooting rounds of 66, 69, 68 and 66 for
269, which is 19 under par. He earned $468,000. Now he's 12th on
the money list, with $814,520. The victory was the 31st of his
career but his first on the Tour. The win was inevitable. The
journey Franco had taken, from a shack without running water in
Asuncion to a sixth-place finish in the Masters, was so unlikely
that the last little step, winning a Tour event, was practically
a formality. After Augusta, Franco knew it would happen. He came
to New Orleans--it took three flights and 14 hours to get
there--feeling like the world was his personal sandbox.

Now there are two South Americans who have won on the Tour:
Roberto De Vicenzo of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Carlitos
Franco of Asuncion, Paraguay. On Sunday night, postvictory,
Franco's thoughts went straight home, to the mother of his
children and to his own mother, Dorila. Franco won the biggest
tournament of his life on Mother's Day, and he dedicated the
victory to all mothers everywhere, but especially to his own.
When Carlitos was a boy and the Franco family was feeling flush
enough to eat chicken for dinner, Dorila would go into the yard,
gather a chicken in her arms, ring its neck, build a fire and
prepare the meal.

Dorila has now moved to a house next door to Carlitos's boyhood
home. (Her neighbors are all her children, except for Carlitos.)
Now she has a real floor and running water, but there are still
chickens in the yard, and the lives of those chickens are still
in jeopardy. There's little movement, economic, social or
geographic, for most Paraguayans. The place where you are born
predicts with uncanny accuracy the place where you will die,
which makes the rise of Carlitos Franco most exceptional.

He was born, literally, in a large shack near the 4th hole of
the Asuncion Golf Club. The house was built from mud bricks and
had a thatched roof, a dirt floor and a makeshift cardboard wall
to separate the space where Carlitos, his five brothers and one
sister slept from the space where their parents slept. There was
a crude outhouse, and water came from a well. If you wanted to
wash with warm water, you heated up a pot over an open flame.

Carlitos's father, Francisco Javier Franco, worked on the golf
course as a greenkeeper and as a caddie. He also made his boys
their first clubs, carved by hand from tree branches. The boys
played barefoot and for money they did not have. Carlitos, the
second to youngest, started playing when he was eight, imitating
his older brothers. Later he worked as a caddie. He never had a
lesson and never saw an instruction book or a golf magazine. (To
this day he has never studied his swing on videotape.) At 15 a
member gave him a set of clubs, and he became a scratch golfer.
At 17 he was named caddie master. Three years later he turned
pro. His swing today is classic: long, powerful, rhythmic,
natural, beautifully balanced. He's a strong man. On Sunday at
English Turn, facing a 170-yard shot into the 10th green, Franco
hit a nine-iron and wound up 15 yards past the pin. Okay, the
hole was playing slightly downwind. Still, you learn about
distance when your only goal is to keep up with your older
brothers. He has a narrow stance and stands tall to the ball, to
create a descending blow. Other than that, he can't tell you
much about his swing. He's no technician.

Golf is a fringe sport in Paraguay, a poor country of fewer than
six million people, roughly 600 of whom have somehow found their
way to one of Paraguay's four courses. Many of those 600 are
immigrant Korean businessmen and their wives. Another half-dozen
are the Franco boys, Carlitos and his brothers, all
professionals. (Angel Franco won the Nike tour's Dominion Open,
in Glen Allen, Va., in 1993.) If you meet a pro golfer from
Paraguay, chances are good his family name will be Franco.

Futbol is the game that matters in Paraguay. Throughout the
country you see shirtless boys playing soccer on dirt fields
with deflated balls. Soccer links the citizenry. On a national
scale golf is not even a curiosity. America, though, is a
fascination. Kids on the street will give impassioned high fives
to the rare American visitors they encounter, imitating a
gesture they see a hundred times a night while watching the NBA
on TNT. Through the magic of TV, Paraguayans know that golf is
important in America, even if they barely know the game itself.
When Franco came home after the Masters, he got the royal
treatment. Even the Comite Olimpico Paraguayo, a formal and
stodgy organization interested chiefly in soccer, honored him
with a plaque commemorating his accomplishments.

In his country, his very beautiful country, Franco's golfing
successes are a valuable distraction. Paraguay, experimenting
with democracy, is in a jittery state. On March 23, the vice
president, Luis Maria Argana, was assassinated. Three nights
later, a group of protesters was fired upon and eight people
were killed. The president, Raul Cubas, resigned and fled to
Brazil. The country now has a new president, Luis Gonzalez
Macchi. It was to this chaos that Franco returned last month, a
Callaway golf bag on his shoulder. Politics and sports commingle
in strange ways. Nine violent deaths somehow elevated the
importance of one sixth-place finish in an American golf
tournament.

Franco has not stuffed his head with his clippings. Driving
along a narrow road in a residential area in Asuncion recently,
he said, "This is where the vice president was killed. He had a
bodyguard and a driver. Two cars sandwiched him, and the firing
started." He was speaking in Spanish. He also speaks fluent
Guarani, a native Indian language. Both are official languages
in Paraguay. "I don't worry for myself. I worry about my kids,
that they might be kidnapped. Everybody knows me. They respect
me. They take care of me. I played golf once with the vice
president, when he was on the supreme court. He was a duffer. I
am not political."

He arrived at his destination, a television studio. He parked in
its dirt lot, brushed his luxuriant hair in the rearview mirror,
combed his mustache with the perfectly manicured fingernail of
his right index finger. He looked good, and he knew it. He was
ready to face his public.

Franco knows he is handsome and charming and smart--he'll remind
you of that regularly--and he ends many of his English sentences
with an exaggerated wink of his right eye. He thinks of himself
as being more Spanish than Indian, but his ancestry is mixed, as
is the case for most Paraguayans. He has high cheekbones, and
his brownish skin is tinged with red. He is a good enough hunter
and fisherman, he says, to keep his family fed without ever
having to play golf again. That he has, according to one of his
brothers, $5 million in the bank takes some of the edge off his
boast.

In the studio, taping a show that combines elements of Live with
Regis & Kathie Lee with This Is Your Life, Franco faces his
past. Out from behind the curtains comes the man who allowed
Franco to play the private Asuncion Golf Club when nobody else
would. He is followed by the man who gave Carlitos his first set
of irons, forged Hogan blades, their sweet spots now worn to the
nub. He is followed by a Korean man who was one of Franco's
early backers. On a TV monitor is Carlitos's elementary school
teacher. His mother and sister are in the audience. The golfer
tries to hold back his tears, for in the culture of his country
men do not cry. He tries, he tries. He cannot. Later, he says to
one of the show's producers, "Next time you invite me, bring
tissues." You won't see that kind of emotion from him on the
golf course. Franco distinguishes between his livelihood and his
life.

Later that night Franco spontaneously invites two dozen friends
and visitors and family members to his home for dinner. They are
served catfish soup and many pounds of grilled meats. They open
many beers. Franco is not an expansive man; he can, in fact, be
quite pithy. At one point during dinner he says, "Anyone who
needs a psychologist shouldn't be playing golf. Confidence comes
from inside you, not from somebody else. My confidence is my
game." Many people have wasted a lot of good words trying to
express that same thought.

The Francos have a lovely house, simple and spacious. Walking
through the rooms, you move from indoors to outdoors without
even realizing it. On the walls of the house Carlos has put up
four pictures of his hero, Seve Ballesteros. Celsa has put up
more of hers, Jesus of Nazareth.

Franco's sons spend much of the party playing with the armed
guard who patrols the house. Franco has two full-time security
guards, who cost him $700 a month. Franco regards this as an
excellent value. He has had no problems. All told, he employs
maybe two dozen people, most of them family members. They are
housekeepers and car washers and gofers and caretakers of his
small country house 20 miles outside Asuncion. They're paid
roughly $200 to $400 a month. In Paraguay, that is nearly a
living wage. The employees, all of them, in their own way,
provide security.

Paraguay itself provides security, yet Franco's plan is to buy a
house in Miami next season and bring his family there for most
of the year, so that he doesn't have to make the overnight
flight home every time he wants to see Celsa and the boys. It is
hard to imagine Franco's living in the U.S. This is a man who
plays air harp while listening to the car radio. This is a man
whose favorite fishing spot is so far off the beaten path that
he finds himself fishing beside Indian men wearing nothing as
they cast their lines, all of them searching for Paraguay's
giant catfish. This is a man who has big plans for the Carlos
Franco Country and Golf Club, to be built on a 400-acre tract
that adjoins his favorite fishing spot. This is man who thrives
off the competitive relationship he has with his brothers, who
envy him and take pride in him in ways that spur him on. This is
a man who visits his mother daily and his father whenever he can.

Francisco Javier Franco died in 1987, and by then the Franco
brothers had already made enough money in golf to give him a
rich man's funeral. He is interred above ground, in a mausoleum
that looks like a small house, a house far grander than anything
he ever lived in. Franco stood before the door to his father's
house the other day, in the rain, his caddie holding an umbrella
over his head. It was autumn in Paraguay, rainy season. A sign
beside the door read, HE WAS A GOOD MAN AND HE LEFT A GREAT
INHERITANCE. The road from the cemetery to the airport, it's
practically a straight shot.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PASCAL RONDEAU BOAT PEOPLE Franco (left, with a helper) says he could live off the land if he had to. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND A NATURAL Franco learned to play from his older brothers, and to this day has never looked at a videotape of his Dalyesque swing. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PASCAL RONDEAU HOME COOKING Franco has hired two full-time security guards to look after his family (from left, Carlos, Celsa and Alcides). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PASCAL RONDEAU RESPECTS The grave of Franco's father is grander than any house in which he lived.

Franco doesn't believe in sports psychologists. "My confidence
is my game," he says.

"I played with the [murdered] vice president, when he was on the
supreme court," Franco says. "He was a duffer."

Carlos's father, Francisco Javier Franco, made his boys their
first clubs, carved by hand from tree branches.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)