Originally created 08/06/99

Unconventional golfer breaking records



ASUNCION, Paraguay -- Chickens scratch under a mango tree in the Franco family's yard, a bald patch of clay so lumpy and pitted a ball can hardly roll on it, much less roll straight.

It's not your conventional putting green -- it isn't even green. But there is little conventional about Carlos Franco.

"Carlos would come out here at night and put sand under that tree and practice his putting with the light from lanterns," his older brother Maximo recalled. "We'd all be asleep and he'd be out here putting."

From that improbable start, Franco today is rewriting the record book on the PGA Tour.

By July he had won the Compaq Classic and the Greater Milwaukee Open, joining Tiger Woods as the only player to win two tournaments in his first year on the tour. He is the first PGA rookie to earn more than $1 million in a season. He even briefly led the Masters.

Back home, Franco is a national hero. People line up at his door to ask favors, total strangers hail him in the street and newspapers chronicle every stroke, every move, every utterance of the poor kid now known as "the pride of Paraguay."

None of it came easy for Franco, starting with his choice of sports. Kids in Paraguay play soccer, not golf. The country has a total of three golf courses that cater to a tiny elite, and Franco was anything but elite.

As a boy growing up in Santisima Trinidad, a barrio on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital, home was a two-room mud shack covered with straw. There was no electricity, plumbing or running water. Shoes were a luxury.

Just around the corner was another world: the Asuncion Golf Club, where family patriarch Francisco Javier Franco worked as a greenskeeper and dreamed that one day his six sons would be professional golfers. Too poor to buy equipment, he took his machete, carved some clubs from supple yacyi wood and sent the boys off to practice.

They all had a knack for the sport, but Carlos was special.

"He had the divine gift, and he made the most of it," said Maximo.

By the age of 7, Franco was a "secretario," the kid who carries the thermoses of water and terere, a local iced tea. Then he became a caddy and practiced with borrowed clubs and balls fished out of a water hazard.

At 14, already a scratch player, he won his first set of golf shoes in a tournament.

Still, not all club members were happy with the scruffy, barefoot boys who sneaked under the fence to play the course -- especially when they started beating the regulars and their sons. There were complaints, and the club suddenly would be closed to the Francos for weeks.

Then the elder Franco took ill and his wife sustained the family by selling fruit and chipa, a kind of cornbread, at the market. The boys worked as caddies, but when they pooled their earnings at the end of the day, the total usually was around 250 guaranis - less than a dollar.

"It was very, very difficult. My husband left us with nothing, and we passed great necessity," said Dorila Ojeda Franco, a ruddy woman of 67 who still lives next to the old house. "But I defended our daily bread with this," she said, slapping her bicep.

Franco quickly moved up to "aficionado," or amateur, and soon was playing invitational tournaments -- and breaking course records -- in neighboring Argentina and Uruguay. At 18, he turned pro, and by 1994 was playing on the Japanese tour.

Last year, he went though the PGA Tour's qualifying school and passed by a single stroke, despite snapping his putter in frustration five holes from the finish.

The other brothers also turned pro, although none has been as successful as Carlos. Today, six of Paraguay's 21 professional golfers are the Franco brothers.

Franco married his high-school sweetheart, Celsa Villagra, but stayed in the old neighborhood, close to his family. Only in 1996 did the Francos and their sons, Carlos and Alcides, move uptown to a stylish but unostentatious house of white stucco and red tile, surrounded by rose bushes.

Mrs. Franco receives visitors at her husband's desk, framed by glass cases filled with dozens of golfing trophies. The walls are covered with newspaper clippings about Franco in English, Spanish and Japanese, along with a blowup of a winner's check for $14,400 from a 1993 tournament in Marbella, Spain.

She is anxious over the family's upcoming move to a new home in Miami's El Doral district. It will shorten the commute to PGA tournaments -- and hopefully will reduce the public's demands on her husband.

"They come every day," she says slowly, closing her eyes as if imagining the line outside. "Carlos helps everyone. He gives them money, medicine, he pays for surgery. He has a great heart."

That, too, sets Franco apart. At a pharmacy across the street, a saleswoman explains why Paraguayans are so taken with him.

"He is a great man," she says. "He has all he has, but still he is humble."