2004: Franco reels in second Milwaukee catch

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By Jeff Rude

Milwaukee

Carlos Franco did more fishing than practicing here last week.

“I catch plenty,” the man from Paraguay said in broken English.

Franco was talking about his haul of bass. But he just as well could have been talking about the cash he reeled in at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. In other words, the big one did not get away. He walked off with the trophy and $630,000.

Other than chipping and putting before rounds, Franco did not hit a practice ball during the four tournament days at Brown Deer Park. Still, he used that long, flowing swing to piece together a 13-under-par 68-63-69-67–267, two strokes better than Fred Funk and Brett Quigley and three up on Patrick Sheehan, Billy Andrade and Olin Browne.

Such abstention has been Franco’s trademark for years. And who’s to argue with him? He has won four Tour titles–twice here, the first in 1999, and twice in New Orleans. He has played in the Presidents Cup, twice.

“When I practice, I come to the golf course a little tired,” said Franco, who does stretch about a half-hour before playing. “A lot of guys hit 200 balls. If I do, I have no chance to play 18 holes.”

He wasn’t too tired to fish. He did so Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on a 5-acre pond by his residence for the week, a Saukville farm house owned by his friend and assistant business manager, Don Tendick. Franco and his wife, Celsa, cooked his bass catch for dinner one night as part of their 16th wedding anniversary week.

The night before, they barbecued steak, chicken and sausage, prepared with Paraguayan spices, after Franco gathered twigs to start the grill’s fire. He has earned $6.7 million on Tour but, at 39, hasn’t lost touch with his humble South American beginnings.

Franco admits to some “secret” practicing by a river when home in Paraguay, but the extent of his preparation here came Wednesday when he hit 50 balls to test a new 58-degree wedge and played the rain-shortened, nine-hole pro-am. Afterward, Tendick, on the bag for the day, said, “Carlos, I think you’re a little rusty still. Maybe you should play one more hole.”

Franco did. Then, showing no signs of rust, he hit 75 percent of his fairways and 76 percent of greens in regulation in the main event.

“I’ve been trying to get him to practice, but he always says no,” Tendick said. “He says it’s bad luck.”

Franco believes in luck, especially now that he won with his wife and children with him for the first time on Tour. She was thinking about not joining him at the course Sunday until he said, “Maybe you bring me luck.”

When he spotted Celsa on 18, she was crying. When he gave her the trophy, he almost cried himself.

“It was unbelievable,” said Franco.“That was most important, winning the first time I take my family.”

The victory snapped a four-year drought. Franco says he “lost” his game for 31⁄2 years and had no confidence hitting irons, usually his strength, and putting. Which raises the question: How does

someone who doesn’t practice snap out of a slump?

“I try to focus better and concentrate better,” he said.

Franco’s concentration was sharp enough for him to birdie five of the first 15 holes of a golf course with high rough and tucked pins. No one got closer than two shots of him on the last six holes.

Quigley could have tied with an eagle at the par-5 18th, but he never got set on the tee after a long wait and flared his drive into the right rough en route to par.

Sheehan, whose lone previous top 10 over two seasons was a tie for third at this spring’s MCI Heritage, had victory within his range when he walked off the 11th green leading by one at 13 under. But he found rough and went bogey-double bogey-bogey on the next three holes while making “the three worst mistakes I made all week.” His drive on 12 hit a tree on the right and rolled back some 60 yards down a tire track into rough. Instead of having a wedge in, he hit a 5-iron long left onto matted down rough and told his caddie, “I have no chance.” He was right. He pitched over the front of the green, chipped to 7 feet and missed the bogey putt.

Besides Franco, Funk was the only player to shoot four rounds in the 60s. His T-2 moved him from ninth to eighth in U.S. Ryder Cup points. Funk said his lone goal for the year was making the Ryder team. That’s one reason he played in the B.C. Open instead of the British Open July 15-18, a decision for which he has been widely criticized.

“I deserved criticism . . . that’s fine,” Funk said. “But it was more important for me to try to make the Ryder Cup team than go to the British Open. I came here rested to a course that suits my game.”

Franco came in rested, too.

But then, he always does.

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