Huffman: Francis aiming to beat the pros - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Huffman: Francis aiming to beat the pros

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Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 8:57 pm | Updated: 9:56 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It's only happened once in the 63 years that the tournament has been played, but Philip Francis is hoping that lightning can strike twice when the AT&T Arizona Open gets under way today at Desert Mountain's Apache Golf Course in Scottsdale.

Francis, a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA who grew up playing on "the Mountain," is attempting to join Paul Nolen in 1984 as the only amateurs to ever prevail over the pros in this 54-hole event that boasts a $100,000 purse.

Nolen, a senior at the University of Arizona when he pulled off the feat, also is in this week's field of 121 pros and 23 amateurs.

But this time, Nolen is a head professional who represents the Gallery Golf Club near Tucson. Francis, who received a sponsor's exemption into the Arizona Open, is the young, hungry Bruin who helped his team win the NCAA title last year in his first full season of college golf.

Francis has played in this tournament five times since getting his first exemption as a highly acclaimed 13-year-old. In the process, he has earned low amateur honors on three occasions.

"I remember the first time, when I was 13, I made the cut and ended up low am, which was pretty cool," Francis recalled. "And a couple of years ago I had my best finish, which was something like a tie for fifth, and I was the low am again.

"But that (fifth-place tie) could have been a whole lot better. I think I shot something like 81 on the last day after being among the leaders."

Francis, who was named the Rolex AJGA Player of the Year in 2006 - the same year he won the U.S. Junior Amateur - has come a long way in the past year. Even though he said he wasn't satisfied "overall" with his individual play as a freshman (he didn't win a tournament), he still managed to break through on the PGA Tour this summer, when he parlayed a sponsor's exemption at the John Deere Classic into a tie for 33rd place.

Even then, Francis wasn't satisfied with his performance against the best players in the world. But what would you expect from a kid who fully expects to be roaming among the big dogs within the next couple of years?

"It was great making the cut at the John Deere,'' conceded Francis, who has played three other times on the PGA Tour as an amateur without making the cut. "I did shoot a 64 in the third round, which could have been a 60 very easily, and I was in like, 11th place, going into the last day.

"Maybe I thought about it too much. But I got off to a bad start on Sunday and ended up shooting 75. That was really disappointing.''

Even though the Arizona Open is a large step down from the PGA Tour, that doesn't necessarily translate into easier competition. This week's field has some battle-hardened touring pros like Todd Demsey, who also received a sponsor's exemption, Danny Briggs, Jerry Smith, Tom Kalinowski, Jon Chafee and Brett Upper, as well as perennial Southwest PGA strongman Don Yrene.

And Francis will be paired for the first two rounds with the defending Arizona Open champion, Julien Trudeau of Tempe.

Of that group, Briggs and Demsey, who both live in Scottsdale, already have proven that the Apache Course can cough up some extremely low numbers. Briggs was especially impressive in the pro-am on Monday and Tuesday, as he shot rounds of 10-under-par 62 and 63 for a very scary 19-under total. Briggs' 62 also broke the course record, while Demsey wasn't far behind with rounds of 65-66.

Whether or not Briggs and Demsey peaked too early remains to be seen. But chances are even those deep-red numbers have little effect on the voracious Francis, who is loaded with confidence but not cocky.

"It would be awesome to win this,'' he said, marveling at the thought. "I love Apache. It's where I go low.''

Not surprisingly, there's another motivating factor that has Francis in a potential feeding frenzy.

"What really gets me excited,'' he said, voice rising, "is the winner gets an exemption into the FBR Open. And if I could get that exemption, wow, that would be awesome - off the charts!''

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