Amateur Francis wins Phoenix Open qualifier

Philip Francis in action at the 2008 U.S. Amateur.

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Two weeks ago, Arizona State’s Philip Francis admitted that missing an entire college season “kinda stinks.”

Francis, who is required to sit out this season after transferring from fellow Pac-10 school UCLA, probably won’t be thinking about that this week, though, when he tees it up in front of his family and friends at TPC Scottsdale in the Phoenix Open, one of the most exciting get-togethers on the PGA Tour.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Francis, who birdied his last three holes to shoot 67 and win the Phoenix Open’s Monday qualifier at McCormick Ranch Golf Club’s Pine Course in his hometown of Scottsdale.

“It’ll be a lot of fun, so many people I know following me,” Francis said. “Can’t wait for (the famous par-3) 16th, too.”

photo

Philip Francis of UCLA watches his tee shot at No. 12 during the 2008 Isleworth-UCF Collegiate Invitational.

Francis, 21, isn’t a stranger to the spotlight. He put together one of the most dominant junior golf careers in recent years, winning four consecutive Junior World Golf Championships from 1999 to 2002, the 2006 U.S. Junior Amateur and a bunch of other major American Junior Golf Association events, including the Thunderbird International in Scottsdale. At one point, Francis held the No. 1 spot in the Golfweek Junior Rankings for almost a year and a half straight, even with current PGA Tour rookie Rickie Fowler, also in in the Phoenix field this week, on his tail.

This isn’t Francis' first PGA Tour event, either. He has played in five since 2007, including the past three years in the John Deere Classic. At the 2008 Deere, Francis’ only made cut on Tour, he shot a third-round 64 and flirted with the tournament lead before shooting a final-round 75 to finish tied for 34th.

But earning a spot in the Phoenix Open, a tournament he has attended as a spectator so many times, just seems a bit more special. Especially at this point in his career.

Francis said he’s finally back in a comfort zone at ASU and its on-campus facility, working hard on his game that hit some bumps during the past two years at UCLA, despite helping the Bruins to a national title in his freshman season. Francis, who was home-schooled as a junior, never quite found his groove in Los Angeles, struggling to live up to the high expectations he had set for himself. When Francis finally made the decision to transfer last June, he said he was excited to get back to “Scottsdale golf” and refocus.

Having not played in a tournament since last summer, Francis has continued to work on a swing change with the help of instructor Chris Walkey that he says will be a “slow and steady progression” but “feels really good” right now.

His recent results are promising.

Francis shot 64 last Thursday in pre-qualifying. Monday, he battled through rain, wind and sometimes hail to top a field that included several notable names, including Ross McGowan, who last week knocked top-seeded Steve Stricker out of the Match Play Championship.

Francis said he’s as confident as ever with his irons and putting, which came into focus over his final three holes Monday, when he needed at least two birdies to force a playoff.

“I knew looking at the morning scores that I needed at least two,” he said.

So he hit 8-iron to 7 feet for birdie on the par-4 16th, and 4-iron to 8 feet for birdie on the par-3 17th. He got up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 18th, after hitting 3-wood just short of the green, to beat Arizona State teammate Braxton Marquez and two others by a shot.

“I hit the ball pretty well in very tough conditions, and I didn’t hit a putt off line of where I wanted to all day,” Francis said.

“I’m still working on a lot of stuff, but it’s good to play like I did today.”

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