Carlos Franco is home, and he is happy. He's in the middle f a three-week break after the Masters, in which he tied for sixth. He doesn't know, of course, that when he returns to the Tour, to play in the Compaq Classic in New Orleans, he will win, set a tournament record and play brilliantly, although he has an inkling. At home, in Paraguay, he's the king of the world. When he leaves home, there's bound to be some carryover.
"You like my country?" he asks you. There's a barefoot boy walking a cow along the side of the road. Two decades ago that boy could have been Franco, except that his family was too poor to own a cow. Today the golfer is driving a Toyota 4Runner. He had other options.
You tell your host his country is beautiful. "It is very beautiful," the golfer says.
Your host does not pause. Not for the cow, the boy, the oncoming traffic or the numerous potholes on this mostly paved road on the outskirts of Asuncion, Paraguay's largest city. Carlos Franco—Carlitos Franco, if you want to use the name he prefers—is wearing a seat belt and singing background vocals to a song playing in the car's tape deck. The song, recorded by a local band, is about the most famous golfer in Paraguay. (It was not a hit, except in the Franco home.) When the golfer's name is mentioned, he raps you on the knee with the back of his fingers and laughs. Carlos Franco!
"Drink this tea, this special tea," he tells you, handing you a cow's horn fashioned into a mug with a straw made of silver inserted through a layer of herbs.
"Is it good for your...?" you begin to ask the golfer. By Franco's judgment, there are stimulants for the male libido in just about every dish, fruit, dessert and beverage in the Paraguayan diet. Amazingly, Franco has just two children.
Your host cuts you off, mid-question. S�, my friend," he says. He is grinning maniacally. "S�, s�."
To be home! Or, as Franco would say in his native Spanish, "iEstar en casa!" To ply his trade, Franco is required to leave not only his house but also his hemisphere. For five years he played the Japanese tour and played it well, winning five times. Last year he was on the winning International team in the Presidents Cup. Since January he has been playing the U.S. Tour. He is 33 and a PGA Tour rookie who is ranked 38th on the money list.
Correction: He was ranked 38th on the money list after the Masters, in which he earned $125,200. Then came the three-week break. He fished. He ate. He danced through the night and into the wee hours with his wife, Celsa. He kicked around a soccer ball with his two boys, Carlos, 10, and Alcides, eight. He played seven holes of golf (and hit maybe 40 practice shots). His ranking fell to 47th. He was not worried, though. Far from it. He returned to the Tour last week for its New Orleans stop at English Turn Golf and Country Club. He won, by two strokes over Steve Flesch and Harrison Frazar, making a series of big-time shots down the stretch, from the rough, from bunkers, sometimes even from the middle of fairways. He set the tournament record by shooting rounds of 66, 69, 68 and 66 for 269, which is 19 under par. He earned $468,000. Now he's 12th on the money list, with $814,520. The victory was the 31st of his career but his first on the Tour. The win was inevitable. The journey Franco had taken, from a shack without running water in Asuncion to a sixth-place finish in the Masters, was so unlikely that the last little step, winning a Tour event, was practically a formality. After Augusta, Franco knew it would happen. He came to New Orleans—it took three flights and 14 hours to get there—feeling like the world was his personal sandbox.
Now there are two South Americans who have won on the Tour: Roberto De Vicenzo of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Carlitos Franco of Asuncion, Paraguay. On Sunday night, postvictory, Franco's thoughts went straight home, to the mother of his children and to his own mother, Dorila. Franco won the biggest tournament of his life on Mother's Day, and he dedicated the victory to all mothers everywhere, but especially to his own. When Carlitos was a boy and the Franco family was feeling flush enough to eat chicken for dinner, Dorila would go into the yard, gather a chicken in her arms, ring its neck, build a fire and prepare the meal.