Balicki: Some ‘can’t-miss’ kids still do
In the mid-2000s, they were the toasts of the town in junior golf circles – a pair of up-and-coming superstars. Just about every major-college coach worked day in and day out to get one, or both, of them into their programs.
Philip Francis of Arizona and Rickie Fowler of California were two young guns with tons of talent.
Francis was a three-time AJGA first-team All-American (2004-06) and the AJGA Player of the Year in ’06. Fowler joined him on the first team in 2005 and ’06.
At one point, the good friends planned to be a package deal, both verbally committing to UCLA for the 2007-08 season.
Fowler, however, had a change of heart. At the 2006 U.S. Amateur, he came out for his first match wearing orange and sporting a Pistol Pete headcover, having switched his allegiance to Oklahoma State.
Francis, meanwhile, remained a Bruin.
They went their separate ways then, and over the next three years, their paths couldn’t have been more different.
Fowler became the first freshman to win the Ben Hogan Award, which is based on college and amateur results over a 12-month period. He had two victories, including the Big 12 Conference Championship and tied for fourth at the NCAA finals. He was Golfweek’s Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, finishing with a 71.1 scoring average.
As a sophomore in 2008-09, Fowler again was a first-team All-American, posting five top 5s, including a T-3 at NCAAs.
He was a member of two winning U.S. Walker Cup teams, and decided to skip his final two college seasons and turn pro. After earning his PGA Tour card that fall at Q-School, he went on to capture PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 and was selected as a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Francis, too, played only two seasons at UCLA. But he didn’t leave the Bruins to turn pro. Instead, he transferred to Arizona State.
His two years at UCLA hardly could be called stellar. In 22 career starts, his scoring average was 73.7 and he managed only four top 10s, his best being a T-3 at the NCAA Central Regional.
He sat out the 2009-10 season after transferring, and as a junior at ASU in 2010-11, he had three top 10s and a 72.68 scoring average in 12 starts.
Francis decided to skip his senior year and turned pro this summer. He now is playing the mini-tours, trying to Monday-qualify for Nationwide Tour events and preparing for Q-School.
Simply put, Fowler has made the transition from junior to college to pro look easy. For Francis, it has been a struggle.
“I think I was able to make a smooth transition because of everything that surrounded me and believing in myself,” Fowler said. “I never made a step forward without knowing that I could compete at that next level.
“Once I got to Oklahoma State, I was surrounded by a history of greatness and by coaches and teammates who were there with similar goals. The transition from one level to the next is challenging for everybody. For most, it’s a process. The struggle isn’t what makes their career; it’s their perseverance and how they overcome the challenge in front of them.”
Francis, however, does have at least one thing Fowler does not: a national-championship ring. As a freshman, Francis tied for 33rd in helping lead UCLA to the NCAA title in 2008 at Purdue’s Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind.
Former Arizona State coach Randy Lein coached Francis last season and has followed both players since their junior-golf days.
“Philip is more of a practitioner,” Lein said. “I think he got caught up in the perfection of his golf swing. He always seemed to concern himself too much with how (the swing) looked and kind of lost sight of the scoring aspect.
“Rickie, on the other hand, just loves to play, loves to compete, loves the competition,” Lein said. “He really doesn’t care what his swing looks like, just what number he puts on his scorecard.”
One longtime and astute follower of junior and college golf told me this: “There are a lot of great players who have come through the AJGA and various junior programs. But for every one of the success stories, there are just as many opposite stories (of failure). Then there’s also a long list of those unsung success stories, players who didn’t have big junior careers but went on to have great college careers. You just never know.”
Something to remember as this year’s heralded freshmen begin their college careers. Which ones will succeed? Which ones will struggle?
About the only thing certain is the uncertainty of it all. The one thing every player knows – or should know – is that when moving to the next level, there are no guarantees.
No matter who you are.