Teen golf star Paolucci playing in fine company
18 Jan 2011

Phil the Thrill was trying to get into Anthony Paolucci’s head, and it was working.

Paolucci, 18 and a senior at La Jolla Country Day, and his playing partner, TaylorMade rep Keith Sbarbaro, were locked in a best-ball friendly match with Phil Mickelson, the reigning Masters champion, over the weekend at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.

If Paolucci could make a 4-foot putt on the last hole, the match would be halved. No blood. If he missed, he’d have to cough up $40 to Mickelson, who annually makes more than $40 million.

“I would like to see you make this Paolucci,” Mickelson needled. “But if you don’t, I’ve got a couple of Andrew Jacksons coming my way. You know which one I’m hoping for.”

Telling the story the next day, Paolucci broke into a grin and rolled his eyes.

“I couldn’t get him out of my head,” he said. “I yanked it bad.”

Paolucci paid up. Happily. It's not every day you get trash talked by a four-time major winner.

It’s a story to be retold for a lifetime, and Paolucci has been quickly piling up some fantastical chapters lately.

Last week, the country’s No. 1-ranked junior golfer was officially invited to play in his first PGA Tour event, next week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Since then, he’s been counseled by another prominent San Diego golfer, Charley Hoffman, and got a call out of the blue to play with Mickelson on Saturday at The Bridges, where both are members.

It was just a few years ago that Paolucci cut class in junior high in his native Dallas to watch Mickelson play in the Byron Nelson. On Saturday, they had breakfast and lunch together, played 36 holes from the same cart, and Mickelson schooled Paolucci on everything from mental approach to teaching him a new chip shot.

“It was a blast,” Paolucci said. “Phil is such a nice guy and so down to earth.”

The most memorable advice from Mickelson?

“Be your own person,” Paolucci said.

He got to see some classic Phil, too.

Mickelson beat him by one shot in the morning, 66-67, and then fired a 29 on the front nine – including a tap-in eagle on the par-5 ninth -- in the afternoon en route to the “ugliest 63 I’ve ever seen,” Paolucci said. “I think Phil hit every green but one on the back, but he didn’t make any putts.”

On their second hole in the morning, Mickelson pulled the pin on a 20-yard chip and canned the shot.

“His chips go at the hole like my 8-foot putts. Perfect speed,” Paolucci said incredulously.

If Paolucci still has a long road to travel to own Mickelson’s flair and confidence, he’s well on his way.

Seventeen months after moving to San Diego from Dallas, Paolucci is the king of the national junior ranks. He won two prestigious tournaments in 2010, never finished out of the top 5, played on a second winning Junior Ryder Cup squad in Scotland and finished the season with a record point total in the Polo Golf Rankings.

The winner of the 2010 individual high school championship in the San Diego Section, Paolucci was considered the nation’s top college recruit when he signed with USC to begin playing for the Trojans in the fall.

“An exceptional ball striker,” said USC coach Chris Zambri. “He’s borderline tour level right now.”

Next week, Paolucci will find out how his game compares when he mixes it up in the big leagues for the first time. Even at the highest level junior events, he’s never played in front of more than a few dozen people.

“My first tour event in my new home city – it’s pretty special, obviously,” Paolucci said. “You want to play well, but at the end of the day it’s all about the process.”

Paolucci’s dad, Mike, a former college golfer at Ohio State, got him started in the game. He signed Anthony up for his first tournament when he was 7; the other kids were 10 and 11.

“He didn’t want to go,” Mike Paolucci, 50, said. “He was scared to death. He didn’t win, but he finished third or fourth, and I remember vividly driving home and him saying, ‘When am I playing in my next tournament?’ From then on, he’s loved to compete.”

At 12, Anthony Paolucci won the Junior Masters, and at 14 he took an enormous step by reaching the finals of the 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur. Had he won, he would have eclipsed Tiger Woods as the youngest champ ever. He lost, but the effort put him in the national spotlight.

“At that point it was clear he wasn’t just another good golfer,” Mike Paolucci said.

At that point, Titleist offered equipment support, and that would prove to be huge when Mike Paolucci took a job with a bio-tech company in Carlsbad in 2009 and the family moved, eventually settling into a home near Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club.

At the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Paolucci became a student of TPI co-founder Dave Phillips. In an example of how top juniors are groomed these days, Phillips put together a team for Paolucci that has analyzed every aspect of his game, with a significant emphasis on body mechanics. Phillips compares himself to a NASCAR crew chief.

“We’re in a unique place where we get to see the best players in the world and analyze what they do,” Phillips said. “When you share that with a junior player, they’re like a sponge.”

Phillips said Paolucci sets himself apart from many other juniors with his work ethic.

“You don’t get better overnight,” Phillips said. “He asks the right questions, puts in the practice and works harder than the other kids.

“Kids are interested in having pretty swings that look like their idols. I tell my kids that it’s fine to have idols, but everybody’s swing is individual. Let’s make sure you know who you are. Most of the best juniors know who they are, and they’re doing it at a younger age.”

Paolucci played a practice round on the Torrey Pines South Course on Sunday and his poise and confidence were evident. He hit only about four fairways, but still shot 69.

At the par-4 15th, he appeared to be in jail behind eucalyptus trees in the left rough, but he escaped by lashing a hook that swerved about 30 yards, with the ball chasing up onto the green. At the 442-yard 17th, he bombed a 300-yard drive down the middle and launched a 9-iron to 5 feet and made birdie.

“I can see Anthony competing pretty well at Torrey,” Zambri said. “It’s a ball striker’s course and he’s a great ball striker.”

Said Mike Paolucci of next week: “He has the game. It’s a matter of how he handles his emotions.”

Anthony Paolucci knows he’ll be crazy nervous for this first shot in the first round. He expects it. But if he gets too wrapped up in the magnitude of his opportunity, he’ll only freeze up.

“Everybody has told me, including the tour players, that you have to treat it like any other tournament,” he said. “They said don’t give it more respect than it deserves. Just go out and play. That’s how you have to approach it.

“People say if I play well here it will open up more doors. But I can’t think about that. You can’t let the other distractions get in your head.”

At least not the way Phil Mickelson can.

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