Paolucci, 18, plays local hero role at Farmers

Anthony Paolucci

Anthony Paolucci

SAN DIEGO – After Anthony Paolucci tapped in for birdie on his final hole Friday, his gallery of about 50 family and friends cheered loudly. Some yelled, “Pooch!” Paolucci looked almost embarrassed by the reaction, offering a sheepish smile before looking at the ground.

Most 18-year-olds aren’t accustomed to overshadowing PGA Tour pros. Paolucci is learning how it feels at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open.

Through 36 holes, he’s tied for 45th at 3-under 141. His playing partners for the first two rounds – Kevin Chappell and Alexandre Rocha – both missed the cut.

Paolucci, from nearby Del Mar, is playing the role of hometown hero this week, the local kid taking on PGA Tour players.

As Paolucci walked to the scoring trailer to sign his second-round 71, Phil Mickelson stopped to offer congratulations. Mickelson and Paolucci played a practice round earlier in the week and have played together at The Bridges, where both are members.

Paolucci said he’d celebrate the accomplishment with his family, playing some video games and ping-pong.

“Coming into this week, I just wanted to play solid, and whatever happened, happened,” Paolucci said. “That was awesome, having that support.”

Early in the tournament, it looked unlikely that he would make the cut. Paolucci bogeyed his first three holes Thursday, but made seven birdies on Torrey Pines South, the same layout that hosted the 2008 U.S. Open, en route to a 70. His 11 birdies over the first two rounds rank eighth in the field.

“He got off to a shaky start, but really showed a lot of poise coming back,” said his caddie/sports psychologist, Jeff Troesch. “Today was more of a test for him mentally because he had something, and then it started to slip away. He did a great job.”

Paolucci was tied for 44th when he made the turn Friday, just one shot inside the cut line, needing a good final nine to make the cut in his PGA Tour debut.

Two-putt birdies on the par-5 14th and 18th holes guaranteed him a weekend tee time. He reached both holes in two despite wayward tee shots. He hit hybrid from 235 yards over a 20-foot-tall tree on the 14th, and hit 6-iron from 200 yards on 18.

Paolucci used to struggle to get out of thick rough, his father Mike said. But he’s been attending the Titleist Performance Institute several days per week since moving to Del Mar from Dallas in September 2009.

“Before, he’d practice 80 percent of the time and work out 20 percent. It’s completely shifted,” said Mike, who played college golf at Ohio State. PGA Tour winners John Cook and Joey Sindelar were among his teammates. “Titleist Performance Institute has basically taken over every aspect of his game. They treat him like a Tour pro.”

Paolucci averaged 293.3 yards per tee shot over his first two rounds this week, ranking 28th in the field. He needed just 4-iron to reach the South courses’s 570-yard, par-5 18th. An adrenaline-filled Paolucci outdrove Chappell and Rocha by 50 yards on the first tee Friday.

“It was ridiculous,” he said.

Paolucci has long been an advanced ball-striker, an asset that helped him this week, said USC coach Chris Zambri. Paolucci’s college career at USC will begin in fall 2011.

“He’s light years ahead of kids, ball-strikingwise,” Zambri said. “He hits it long, flush and straight. He just flushes every ball. It’s one of those things he’s done at a really high level for a really long time. I think it’s just a given in his mind that he’s going to hit it off the screws, and he does.”

Paolucci’s ball speed has been measured in the mid-170s, which would rank him in the top 15 on the PGA Tour. His tall frame and long arms help him create speed. He has a wide backswing with little wrist hinge, and a rapid transition.

His ability to control long shots from the rough is the biggest difference between the 14-year-old who advanced to the final of the 2007 U.S. Junior and the current player. He was rail-thin in ’07, standing 5 feet, 11 inches and weighing 140 pounds. He’s still lean, but a stronger 6-2 and 170 pounds. 

Paolucci was an incoming high-school freshman when he made the U.S. Junior final. His run was considered a surprise by many.

Paolucci’s performance this week is no surprise. He’s No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Rankings and the AJGA’s player of the year. He’s the fourth amateur in the past five years to make the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open. Jamie Lovemark made the cut in ’07 and ’08. Gregor Main did so in ’09.

“It gives you confidence,” said Lovemark, a PGA Tour rookie who also attended USC. “It helps tune up your game. It’s nice to play four competitive rounds against all these players. Making the cut as an am was huge for me.”

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