The Can't-Miss Kid

July 23, 2007
July 23, 2007

Table of Contents
July 23, 2007

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
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Pro Football

The Can't-Miss Kid

Precocious Philip Francis Is Right on Schedule

Philip francis isa walking sugar high. The reigning U.S. Junior champ and freshman-to-be at UCLAis one of the best young talents in golf, and he has to be the mosthyperkinetic. Francis walks fast, talks fast, putts fast and generally actslike a kid in a hurry, which he is. One afternoon at last week's John DeereClassic, which Francis played on a sponsor's exemption, he sat still in thelocker room just long enough to simultaneously answer a reporter's questions,compulsively check his BlackBerry, drink two Cokes, devour a lunch and twoice-cream treats, and share inside jokes with his friend and caddie ThomasBuran. It was exhausting simply sitting at the same table with him.

This is an article from the July 23, 2007 issue

Francis, 18, hasalways done things in a rush. He was swinging a plastic golf club at 11 months,and he won his first tournament at age four. His mind-boggling junior successclosely paralleled that of Tiger Woods, as Francis won 147 tournaments, inplaces as far away as Fiji. His four consecutive Junior World titles brokeWoods's record of three straight. Francis has been so single-minded in buildinghis career that during his sophomore year of high school in Scottsdale, Ariz.,he made the decision--despite the misgivings of his parents, John and Bee--tobe homeschooled, giving him more flexibility in his travel and practiceschedules. "He has a passion for this game the likes of which I have seenin very, very, very few players," says Jim Flick, 67, dean of thebrand-name swing gurus, who has been Francis's mentor since age seven.

This is the firstsummer of the rest of Francis's life, a time when he gets a taste of what it'slike to compete against adults, not fellow kids awed by his success. It's atall task: Francis is but 5' 11" ("if he spikes his hair way up,"according to Buran). And because he has not only the energy of a hummingbirdbut also the metabolism, he weighs 140 pounds despite daily 2,200-calorieprotein shakes and a diet of which he says "I'll put anything in my body,as long as there's a lot of it." But in only two tournaments with the bigboys, Francis has proved to be a quick study.

Six weeks ago hemade his PGA Tour debut at the Stanford St. Jude Championship, playingrecklessly en route to rounds of 78 and 79, 12 strokes off the cut line. "Itreated it like just another junior tournament," says Francis. "Iwasn't very prepared. There was nothing in my notebook, and I pretty much firedat every flag."

Last week heprepped for the Deere with the obsessiveness of that other Phil, Mickelson.Francis sweet-talked his way into a practice round with Masters champion ZachJohnson and peppered him with questions, and after multiple tours of TPC DeereRun he had graffitied his yardage book with all manner of insider'sinformation. The homework was evident as early as the second hole of Francis'sfirst round, the short, tight par-4 11th. (He had begun his round on the 10thhole.) Francis split the fairway with a gorgeous stinger three-wood that stayedbelow the tree line, then faced a classic sucker pin, cut on the front right ofthe green, behind a gaping bunker. Waiting for his son to hit, John Francissaid, "I wouldn't be surprised if this misses right. He's been pin-huntingpractically since he was in diapers." Instead Philip hit a safe shot longand left of the flag, leading to an easy tap-in par. With a laugh, John said,"We've just witnessed history. That wouldn't have happened a monthago."

John is a mellowdude who likes to end every day with a nice Cabernet and a Cuban cigar, whichhe acquires through myriad secret sources. (Ask a perfunctory question abouthis taste for the Cubans, and you'd better be prepared for a long, eruditediscussion. Says John, "It starts with the soil, which has a highconcentration of zinc, and....") John and Bee own a convenience store withgaming machines in Las Vegas, but Bee, a native of Sweden, was a stay-at-homemom until she got into real estate 10 years ago. (Daughter Jonna, 15, playstennis.) The parents of a golf prodigy always come under suspicion, but Johnand Bee project a reassuring normalcy, and of their son's success they seemmore amused than anything. Bee says that she's dying to box up the hundreds oftrophies and plaques that litter her house, but Philip won't let her. Ask whichof her son's accomplishments she is most proud of, and she says, "That he'snever thrown a club. We don't allow that."

It's true that injunior circles Philip is almost universally lauded for his comportment andsportsmanship, but like any teenager, he can still vex his parents. Back at thefirst round of the Deere, he continued to play smart, disciplined golfthroughout his first nine holes, turning in even par, including a sweet birdieon the 569-yard, uphill par-5 17th, which he reached with two mighty blows. Onnumber 2, his 11th hole, a sharply doglegged par-5 with a green protected by apond, Francis hit a pretty good drive that drifted into the intermediary roughat the right edge of the fairway. The ball was below his feet, 255 yards to thefront edge of the green. A stress-free layup and a stock wedge could havegotten him under par, but over Buran's objections Francis quickly unsheathedhis three-wood and tried to reach the green. What followed was a wild shotmiles to the left, and he had to scramble from there to make bogey. "It'skamikaze golf!" John bellowed, shaking his head. "I swear he does stufflike that just to annoy me."

Philip thencompounded the error by trying to get the stroke back on the next hole, firingat the flag on a tough par-3 and missing on the short side, which led toanother bogey. He regained his composure after that, signing for a three-over74 that felt a lot lower. Afterward Francis correctly said he had played 16good holes and made "two very big boo-boos. You can't do that out here. Onnumber 2, I made a really bad, really rash decision. I had just knocked it onin two on the previous par-5 and was pretty pumped up, and I felt so goodlooking at the shot that I rushed it without thinking it through."

His goal for thesecond round, he said, was "to go as low as possible without doing anythingcrazy again."

Says Flick,"One thing about Philip, he's honest with himself, and that's more rarethan you think. He handles the disappointments so well. He processes them andlearns from them. I was lucky enough to work with Jack Nicklaus for many years,and Phil sees the game the same way as Jack: a puzzle you constantly have tofigure out."

On friday,Francis put all the pieces together, shooting a dazzling 68 that could havebeen considerably lower but for a number of good birdie chances that he failedto convert on the slow greens and some bad luck on the 10th hole, where hisperfect approach bounced out of the cup and ran 20 feet away. In a display ofTour-caliber ball striking, he hit 14 greens and 12 fairways, averaging 305.5yards a drive. Unlike a lot of juniors, who robotically make the same swingover and over, Francis is a creative shotmaker who can shape his driver bothways, loves to hit stingers, and has an array of crafty shots around thegreens. Francis ultimately missed the cut by two strokes, but one of hisplaying partners, Tour rookie Tom Johnson, came away impressed. His scoutingreport: "Great game, great composure, great kid. Some of the shots he hitout there, you can see he has a ton of talent. I was also really impressed withhis attitude. He was so courteous--almost too courteous. He kept asking aboutour through lines and stuff like that, and finally I said, 'Forget us, just goplay.' " Francis's flashy game didn't go unnoticed at the largely starlessevent. One prominent agent who tracked him last week came away practicallysalivating: "Can you imagine when he gains another 30 pounds?Scary."

John francis is6'2 1‚ÅÑ2" and he says he did a lot of his growing in college. Philip willdoubtlessly fill out physically, but UCLA will be an important chance for himto grow in other ways. Many an obsessed golfer has sacrificed his youth chasingglory. It so happened that the first round of the Deere was on the same day ofthe surprise announcement that 5' 1", 16-year-old Tadd Fujikawa was turningpro, which left John shaking his head. "I would be personally embarrassedfor my son to do that," he said. He adds that he "absolutely"expects Philip to stay in college for four years.

For Philip, UCLAis a mulligan on all the fun he gave up on by homeschooling, which he describesas a lonely experience he now regrets. Says Bee, "He's looking forward togoing to college and experiencing some of the things he missed out on."

Many of them willhave golden tans. Francis is a typical teenage boy, riding a raging river ofhormones. Ask about his extended family in Sweden, and he says, "I lovevisiting Sweden because the girls are absolutely gorgeous." When talk turnsto the special effects of Transformers, a movie he and Buran took in last week,he says, "That was one reason I liked it." What was the other--thebrunette? "And the blonde."

In Los Angeles,Francis can chase waves as well as girls. He has an admirable number ofhobbies, including surfing, which he takes so seriously that he has actuallyattended a surf school to improve his form. One of Francis's beach buddies isJamie Lovemark, a longtime friend and rival from the junior circuit. Lovemarkwon the 2007 NCAA individual title as a freshman at USC, and this summer he hasmade a big splash competing with the pros, with outings that included a playoffloss at a recent Nationwide tour event and three cuts made in three PGA Tourevents. Francis admits that his competitive jones has been stoked by Lovemark'ssuccess. "Obviously," he says.

Francis will getanother chance to make some noise this week at the U.S. Bank Championship inMilwaukee, where he's again playing on a sponsor's exemption. Given Francis'spromising performance at the Deere, expect him to play well in Milwaukee andeven to make the cut. To Francis, though, that's setting the bar way too low."I don't like telling people this, because I don't want to sound arrogant,but my goal is to win," he says. You've got to love the kid--old enough toknow better, but talented enough to believe it.

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"HE HAS A PASSION FOR THIS GAME the likes of whichI have seen in very, very, very few players," says Flick, the swing guruwho has been Francis's mentor since age seven.
THE PARENTS OF A GOLF PRODIGY ALWAYS COME UNDERSUSPICION, but John and Bee project a reassuring normalcy, and of their son'ssuccess seem more amused than anything.
Johnson's scouting report: "GREAT GAME, GREATCOMPOSURE, GREAT KID. Some of the shots he hit, you can see he has a ton oftalent. I was also impressed with his attitude."
Francis, the U.S. Junior champ, shot a 68 at the John DeereClassic.
Although Francis (with Buran) was better prepared at the Deere, a couple ofmistakes cost him.
Bee (far left) had misgivings about home-schooling Philip, who enrolls at UCLAin the fall.
TWO PHOTOSDavid Bergman