Junior golf is bursting at the seams, or so it seems. With so many talented teenagers sporting big-time swings, predicting the future of the game is more difficult than negotiating a buried lie.
What’s interesting, from an East Valley standpoint, is that three of junior golf’s brightest stars reside in Scottsdale — Amanda Blumenherst (18 years old), Philip Francis (16) and Esther Choe (15). All are 2004 first-team Rolex All-Americans as deemed by the American Junior Golf Association, and chances are great they will someday play on the LPGA and PGA tours, barring the unforeseen.
One thing that’s certain is, their paths will vary dramatically, as will their arrival — if ever — at golf’s top rung.
Blumenherst, a senior at Phoenix Xavier Prep, has accepted a scholarship to Duke, which has become the top women’s collegiate program. Her only other option, she said, was choosing Stanford, which also offered her a scholarship.
Francis, who was a sophomore at Notre Dame Prep until a few weeks ago, has quit high school and decided he wants to be homeschooled in order to do what he does best — play golf.
"It’s much, much easier, and it’s going to help my golf game,’’ Francis said of his decision. "I’ll probably go to college . . . but turning pro always has been my dream.’’
Choe, a sophomore at Cactus Shadows High School, said she is not certain whether it’s college or straight to the LPGA for her.
"I’m just going to keep playing and see what happens,’’ she said. "But I think I have (the game) to play at that level (the LPGA).’’
Amazing stuff, really. Of these three outstanding juniors, only one has definitely committed to the traditional route. And it’s not like Francis and Choe are overassessing their games, either. Francis came within one shot of qualifying for the FBR Open in January, and Choe lost a recent playoff for a spot in the Safeway International at Superstition Mountain.
Blumenherst, however, provides what many might think is the soundest logic as to why a player needs college over the pro ranks. And this is from a player who has played on the same level with LPGA rookies Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome, as well as amateur sensation Michelle Wie.
"It’s a temptation (to turn pro), but you can’t replace the college experience, the chance to learn how to be independent,’’ said Blumenherst, who carries an impressive 4.2 grade-point average at Xavier along with four national wins on the AJGA in 2004.
"I think it’s great there are so many young players coming out early for the LPGA. But money can’t buy back those years.’’
Don’t you wish every kid was as grounded as Blumenherst? At the same time, who is to say Francis and Choe are not just as focused on what they want out of life?
Francis always has been way ahead of the curve, and still is. He recently captured the Arizona Public Links Championship, beating the state’s top amateur, Ken Kellaney. Then again, it’s what you might expect from the only kid ever to win the prestigious World Junior Championship in San Diego four straight years (2000-2003) — a feat not even Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson could accomplish.
"Over 130 tournaments,’’ Francis noted almost nonchalantly when asked how many titles he has won since he began competing as a 6-year-old.
Choe also maintains a very impressive 4.3 GPA. She was going to be a figure skater at age 9, but then followed her older brother, Ben, to the driving range one day, and . . . .
"I loved hitting balls,’’ said Choe, who last year won the British Junior Open Championship, and already has played on U.S. teams for the Junior Solheim Cup and Canon Cup.
Jim Flick, the legendary instructor who works with both Choe and Francis at Desert Mountain on an almost daily basis, said there is no doubt both his prized pupils have tour pro potential. He calls Choe "the best student I’ve ever had when it comes to making a correction,’’ and Francis "has gained about 30 yards in distance in a year’s time; he’s so much stronger.’’
But predicting who is ready to play at the next level and who is not, is perhaps the most difficult call in the game, Flick added.
"There are darn few kids who have ever made it on the PGA, just look at Ty Tryon,’’ Flick warned. "There’s a much better chance on the LPGA, because girls seem to mature faster, physically, than boys.’’
But why are there so many kids who entertain thoughts of the big leagues at such a young age?
"What’s happening is, Tiger has made it cool to be a golfer,’’ Flick said. "Before Tiger came along, golfers used to be nerds. Now all these kids are committing to it and they have a real passion for it . . . It’s a phenomenon that sure wasn’t there 10 to 20 years ago.’’
And Flick’s advice on the great debate between going to college or going for the money?
"The vast majority — the huge, huge majority — need to go to college, no question,’’ he said. "It’s case by case, sure. But as a rule, teenagers are not ready for professional golf."