Francis leaving UCLA for ASU

       Philip Francis is coming home.
       The 20-year-old who grew up in Scottsdale and followed in the footsteps of Billy Mayfair as one of Arizona’s favorite sons in the game of golf, is transferring from UCLA to Arizona State. Even though he’ll have to sit out for next season (2009-10), Francis said he feels it’s “absolutely the right decision for me.’’
      “ASU is just a whole better fit at this time in my life,’’ said Francis, whose resume includes the 2006 U.S. Junior Amateur title along with an NCAA team title he helped the Bruins win in 2008.
      “Plus, I’ll be back playing and practicing at Desert Mountain, where I grew up. I guess it’s just what I need at this juncture of my life.’’
      Francis, who had been a regular at UCLA for his first two seasons, had hoped that a Pac-10 committee that listened to his transfer appeal would rule that there were extenuating circumstances in his case that would allow him to play for ASU immediately. But the committee ruled that he must sit out one season – the usual penalty for transferring within the conference – while being allowed to keep his remaining two years of eligibility.
      “I knew it was a long shot,’’ Francis said of the special circumstances that involved the coach who recruited him at UCLA, O.D. Vincent. “But I’m satisfied that we gave it a good try and I can certainly live with (the committee’s) decision.
      “Being back in Arizona is only going to be a good thing even if I do have to sit out a year.’’
      Francis had hoped that the committee would side with his argument of being recruited by one coach but having to play for another. Vincent, who left UCLA to become the men’s golf coach at Duke — and has since left Duke to become an associate AD at Washington — signed Francis to a letter of intent with UCLA in 2007 and then left for Durham, N.C., a few weeks prior to Francis’ arrival in Los Angeles.
    “I’ve got to admit that I was disappointed when Coach Vincent left right before I showed up,’’ Francis conceded. “In fact, when I heard he was leaving to coach Duke I was shocked.
    “But that’s just the way it goes sometimes in college athletics, I guess. So in the end it really wasn’t about the coach, because (UCLA) Coach (Derek) Freeman is going to be a great coach. It was about the golf.’’
     Now Francis, who generally is regarded as Arizona’s all-time junior on a national level — he was once ranked as the No. 1 junior in the country for 65 straight weeks — compared with Mayfair’s dominance in the junior ranks at the state level, is going to be a Sun Devil, just like Billy. And that’s music to ASU Coach Randy Lein’s ears even if Lein can’t say much about his prized transfer without getting in trouble.
    “NCAA rules say I can only acknowledge he is going to transfer within the conference,’’ Lein explained. “I can’t say anything about Philip’s (future) impact on our team.
    “I can say that I’m glad the committee ruled he has two more years of eligibility remaining, and I hope he ends up staying with us for all three years.’’
     It could make for a very interesting scenario, as Lein’s team is coming off a fantastic season in which the Sun Devils finished second to No. 1 Oklahoma State in the 54-hole medal portion of the championship, which qualified ASU as the No. 2 seed for match play. The Devils ended up bowing to eventual champion Texas A&M, the No. 7 seed, in the first round.
      Lein said four of those players – Knut Borsheim, Jesper Kennegard, Scott Pickney and Chan Kim — will return next season, as only Stephan Gross is leaving school to turn pro. Lein also said the team has depth as “three or four other players on the team are very good with outstanding potential.’’
       “It’s looking pretty good for us,’’ Lein said of ASU’s future. “And once Philip starts school at ASU, well, then I can say all those wonderful things about him that I can’t say right now.’’
     Francis has always been a top player at every level even if he’ll have to wait at least another year to get that first college victory. He had numerous top-10 finishes for the Bruins, and came within two holes of winning the recent NCAA Central Regional.
     “So far, (the Central Regional) was the high point and low point of my college career all at the same time,’’ said Francis, who held a one-stroke lead through 70 holes before back-to-back bogeys dropped him to third place.
       “I guess I got a little nervous. I really wanted to win it, to make an NCAA regional my first win. Now, hopefully, that first win will come at ASU.’’
       Lately, the times have been trying for Francis. First UCLA failed to defend its NCAA title, falling short of qualifying for match play. Francis started with a bang, but followed his opening round 70 with a pair of 77s as the Bruins ended up 23rd among 30 teams.
      Then Francis could do no better than 74 in the opening round of U.S. Open sectional qualifying on Monday at Somis, Calif., and had to withdraw after two holes of his second 18 because he hit a tree root and injured his wrist.
       “Yeah, it hasn’t been a good week, because all I’ve been doing is studying for the past two (weeks),’’ he said. “In fact, I’ve been studying so much I didn’t have a chance to work on my game.
        “That was the story (at sectional qualifying): I was so focused on my finals that I didn’t have the concentration I needed for sectional qualifying. I had a good chance in that I was 2 over after the first 20 holes, and I was a little surprised when even par made it (into the U.S. Open).’’
       But there still is a lot of golf to play, even if Francis admits that sitting out a year will be another tough assignment. Especially when you’ve been playing golf since you were 18 months old and have collected over 140 tournament titles along the way, as Francis has.
      “I’m sure it’s going to get to me at some point,’’ he said of the inevitable hiatus he is facing in the college ranks. “But I’m going to play as much amateur golf as I can, and even do Monday qualifiers (on the PGA Tour) in the meantime.’’
      One event that is immediately on his radar is the John Deere Classic in July. Francis has a sponsor’s exemption into the event for a second straight year after finishing tied for 30th there a year ago.
      “It (the John Deere Classic) is one of my best memories,’’ Francis noted. “I opened with a 67 and then shot 71-64 to get within three shots of the leader (Kenny Perry) going into Sunday’s final round. I think I was in like 10th place with 18 holes to go.
       “Once again, I was super nervous, and I got off to a bad start with bogeys on the first two holes and ended up shooting (75). But it was one incredible experience.’’
       That’s also what he’s taking away from his two years at UCLA, he added.
       “I wouldn’t trade them for anything, chiefly because I really did learn a lot, like how to take care of myself and live on my own in a different city,’’ he said. “So that was a great, great time in my life and I really did enjoy it.’’
       But live, learn and keep growing is the theme these days, Francis added.
      “Honestly, I never, ever thought I’d be a Sun Devil, I really didn’t,’’ he said. “Now it’s all changed and I’m really looking forward to playing for ASU.
     “They’ve got a great team. I really like the guys and Randy is a great coach. And I think when I get a chance to finally play, I’m going to be able to help them out.’’
      His new coach can’t say so, so I’ll say it for him: There’s no doubt!