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Philip francis is a walking sugar high. The reigning U.S. Junior champ and freshman-to-be at UCLA is one of the best young talents in golf, and he has to be the most hyperkinetic. Francis walks fast, talks fast, putts fast and generally acts like a kid in a hurry, which he is. One afternoon at last week's John Deere Classic, which Francis played on a sponsor's exemption, he sat still in the locker room just long enough to simultaneously answer a reporter's questions, compulsively check his BlackBerry, drink two Cokes, devour a lunch and two ice-cream treats, and share inside jokes with his friend and caddie Thomas Buran. It was exhausting simply sitting at the same table with him.
Francis, 18, has always done things in a rush. He was swinging a plastic golf club at 11 months, and he won his first tournament at age four. His mind-boggling junior success closely paralleled that of Tiger Woods, as Francis won 147 tournaments, in places as far away as Fiji. His four consecutive Junior World titles broke Woods's record of three straight. Francis has been so single-minded in building his career that during his sophomore year of high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., he made the decision--despite the misgivings of his parents, John and Bee--to be homeschooled, giving him more flexibility in his travel and practice schedules. "He has a passion for this game the likes of which I have seen in very, very, very few players," says Jim Flick, 67, dean of the brand-name swing gurus, who has been Francis's mentor since age seven.
This is the first summer of the rest of Francis's life, a time when he gets a taste of what it's like to compete against adults, not fellow kids awed by his success. It's a tall task: Francis is but 5' 11" ("if he spikes his hair way up," according to Buran). And because he has not only the energy of a hummingbird but also the metabolism, he weighs 140 pounds despite daily 2,200-calorie protein shakes and a diet of which he says "I'll put anything in my body, as long as there's a lot of it." But in only two tournaments with the big boys, Francis has proved to be a quick study.
Six weeks ago he made his PGA Tour debut at the Stanford St. Jude Championship, playing recklessly en route to rounds of 78 and 79, 12 strokes off the cut line. "I treated it like just another junior tournament," says Francis. "I wasn't very prepared. There was nothing in my notebook, and I pretty much fired at every flag."
Last week he prepped for the Deere with the obsessiveness of that other Phil, Mickelson. Francis sweet-talked his way into a practice round with Masters champion Zach Johnson and peppered him with questions, and after multiple tours of TPC Deere Run he had graffitied his yardage book with all manner of insider's information. The homework was evident as early as the second hole of Francis's first round, the short, tight par-4 11th. (He had begun his round on the 10th hole.) Francis split the fairway with a gorgeous stinger three-wood that stayed below the tree line, then faced a classic sucker pin, cut on the front right of the green, behind a gaping bunker. Waiting for his son to hit, John Francis said, "I wouldn't be surprised if this misses right. He's been pin-hunting practically since he was in diapers." Instead Philip hit a safe shot long and left of the flag, leading to an easy tap-in par. With a laugh, John said, "We've just witnessed history. That wouldn't have happened a month ago."
John is a mellow dude who likes to end every day with a nice Cabernet and a Cuban cigar, which he acquires through myriad secret sources. (Ask a perfunctory question about his taste for the Cubans, and you'd better be prepared for a long, erudite discussion. Says John, "It starts with the soil, which has a high concentration of zinc, and....") John and Bee own a convenience store with gaming machines in Las Vegas, but Bee, a native of Sweden, was a stay-at-home mom until she got into real estate 10 years ago. (Daughter Jonna, 15, plays tennis.) The parents of a golf prodigy always come under suspicion, but John and Bee project a reassuring normalcy, and of their son's success they seem more amused than anything. Bee says that she's dying to box up the hundreds of trophies and plaques that litter her house, but Philip won't let her. Ask which of her son's accomplishments she is most proud of, and she says, "That he's never thrown a club. We don't allow that."
It's true that in junior circles Philip is almost universally lauded for his comportment and sportsmanship, but like any teenager, he can still vex his parents. Back at the first round of the Deere, he continued to play smart, disciplined golf throughout his first nine holes, turning in even par, including a sweet birdie on the 569-yard, uphill par-5 17th, which he reached with two mighty blows. On number 2, his 11th hole, a sharply doglegged par-5 with a green protected by a pond, Francis hit a pretty good drive that drifted into the intermediary rough at the right edge of the fairway. The ball was below his feet, 255 yards to the front edge of the green. A stress-free layup and a stock wedge could have gotten him under par, but over Buran's objections Francis quickly unsheathed his three-wood and tried to reach the green. What followed was a wild shot miles to the left, and he had to scramble from there to make bogey. "It's kamikaze golf!" John bellowed, shaking his head. "I swear he does stuff like that just to annoy me."
Philip then compounded the error by trying to get the stroke back on the next hole, firing at the flag on a tough par-3 and missing on the short side, which led to another bogey. He regained his composure after that, signing for a three-over 74 that felt a lot lower. Afterward Francis correctly said he had played 16 good holes and made "two very big boo-boos. You can't do that out here. On number 2, I made a really bad, really rash decision. I had just knocked it on in two on the previous par-5 and was pretty pumped up, and I felt so good looking at the shot that I rushed it without thinking it through."
His goal for the second round, he said, was "to go as low as possible without doing anything crazy again."
Says Flick, "One thing about Philip, he's honest with himself, and that's more rare than you think. He handles the disappointments so well. He processes them and learns from them. I was lucky enough to work with Jack Nicklaus for many years, and Phil sees the game the same way as Jack: a puzzle you constantly have to figure out."