Esther Choe, 17, and Philip Francis, 17, both of Scottsdale, Ariz., were named the Rolex Junior Players of the Year by the American Junior Golf Association, the AJGA announced Wednesday, Oct. 25.
Their esteemed accomplishments during the 2006 season will be heralded Nov. 19 during the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet held at The Cloister in Sea Island, Ga. The awards ceremony, dubbed “The Greatest Night in Junior Golf,” will also trumpet the achievements of the rest of golf’s next generation, the Rolex Junior All-America Teams and the HP Scholastic Junior All-America Team.
Both Choe and Francis ended the 2006 Polo Golf Rankings cycle as the No. 1-ranked players in the Girls and Boys Divisions, respectively. They combined for eight national junior golf titles this season and an aggregate stroke average of 70.5 in their 45 total rounds of national junior stroke play competition.
Both players are also verbally committed to college programs. Choe recently committed to the University of Arizona while Francis committed to UCLA earlier in 2006.
“This is an honor that sets you apart from your peers as the best junior in the country,” Francis said. “To be included on the list of past award winners makes me extremely proud of this accomplishment and will only make me work harder to live up to their reputations.”
This is the first time in the AJGA’s 28 years of naming Rolex Junior Players of the Year that the two recipients come from the same city. Choe and Francis, who live less than a mile from one another and share Jim Flick as their instructor at Desert Mountain, now join Willie Wood (1978), Heather Farr (1980, 1982), and Grace Park (1994, 1996) as Rolex Junior Players of the Year from the state of Arizona.
“Philip and I talked at the beginning of the season and made it our goal to both win player of the year,” Choe explained. “We motivated and supported each other during practice and during tournaments to get to the next level.”
This honor also comes with a spot on the Rolex Junior All-America First Team, a familiar grouping for both Choe and Francis. This will be the third consecutive year both have earned their way tnto this prestigious assembly of junior golfers from around the country.
Choe’s 2006 season included three AJGA victories and four more top-three finishes, but her Rolex Junior Player of the Year campaign had a tumultuous beginning. She failed to advance to the match play portion of the Polo Golf Junior Classic last November in Sea Island, Ga. – the first event of the AJGA’s 2006 season. She rebounded nicely at her next AJGA event in April, however, finishing third at the Heather Farr Classic at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Ariz., with a 67-71-76–214 tournament total. She then gained more momentum by pairing with Francis in early May to win the I.R.I. Arizona National Mixed Team Championship hosted by Annika Sorenstam and Jim Furyk in Tucson, Ariz.
Choe began her summer run Memorial Day Weekend at the Thunderbird International Junior at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale. Her 72-68-76–216 performance landed her in second place, narrowly losing by one stroke, in one of the stoutest fields of junior golf.
After the impressive Thunderbird International Junior finish, she made the trip to Glenwild Golf Club & Spa in Park City, Utah, for the Rolex Girls Junior Championship. She opened with a 2-under-par 69 to lead by two strokes. She would never relinquish this lead, stretching it to five strokes after the second round with a 4-under-par 67 and finishing the tournament three strokes better than her nearest competitor with a 5-under-par 208 tournament total.
After this victory, Choe went on to finish third at the Rolex Tournament of Champions at Hiwan Golf Club in Evergreen, Colo., advance to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, and place second at the PING Phoenix Junior at Superstition Mountain. In these three events, she amassed a combined 71.7 stroke average.
She ended the 2006 season with an exclamation point by winning the inaugural PING Invitational at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla. Choe set the course record in the opening round with a 4-under-par 68 and then matched the record during the final round to win by five with a 68-74-68–210 tournament total.
In her career, she has accumulated six AJGA titles including three AJGA Invitationals: the aforementioned Rolex Girls Junior Championship and PING Invitational, and the 2005 Rolex Tournament of Champions. She is now a four-time Rolex Junior All-American (2003-2006) and has been selected for the past three Canon Cup West Teams and the past two PING Junior Solheim Cup U.S. Teams.
Francis’s five national junior golf victories and five more top-10 finishes in 2006 competition proved him worthy of the Rolex Junior Player of the Year honor. He started the season by advancing to the semifinals of the Polo Golf Junior Classic before losing to eventual champion Jamie Lovemark, now a freshman at the University of Southern California.
In April, Francis finished in second at the AJGA Craig Ranch Junior at the TPC of Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, won the Heather Farr Classic, and tied for fourth at the CORE Realty Holdings Junior Championship at The Bridges Golf Club in San Ramon, Calif.
After his win with Choe at the I.R.I. Arizona National Mixed Team Championship hosted by Annika Sorenstam and Jim Furyk and a 10th-place showing at the Scott Robertson Memorial, he won his third AJGA event of the season at the Thunderbird International Junior, besting the top juniors in the world with a 71-70-65–206 tournament total.
In mid-June, Francis traveled to Greensboro, N.C., for the FootJoy Boys Invitational, another AJGA Invitational. He posted a 72-71-74-68–285 tournament total, good enough to tie for 10th place. Despite an already successful 2006 campaign, Francis would soon show that the best was yet to come.
In July, he came to the Rolex Tournament of Champions already with three victories and five top-10 finishes. By week’s end, however, he added his second AJGA Invitational title of the year to his resume. Despite constant rain throughout the four-round event, Francis posted a 71-65-72-70–278 tournament total to win by one stroke.
The very next week, he tallied a 68-69–137 total during stroke play qualifying at the U.S. Junior Amateur at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to be seeded No. 2 heading into match play. His march to the finals included a 20-hole marathon during the quarterfinal matches to defeat 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur Champion Sihwan Kim. During the 36-hole final against Richard Lee of Chandler, Ariz., Francis took the lead on the fourth hole and never looked back, defeating Lee 3 and 2. In the 34-hole match, Francis carded nine birdies, an eagle and two bogeys.
In his AJGA career, Francis now owns four AJGA titles – all of them earned in 2006 – and 16 additional top-10 AJGA finishes. He has also played on two Canon Cup West Teams (2004, 2005).
Introduced by the AJGA in 1978, Rolex Junior Players of the Year are annually honored at the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet, which officially ends the AJGA’s season. Past recipients have gone on to become some of the most esteemed players on the PGA and LPGA Tours, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Grace Park, Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer.
None of this would be possible without the support of Rolex Watch, the AJGA’s Premier Partner and supporter of the Association since 1983.
Along with the sponsorship of the Rolex Junior Players of the Year, Rolex Junior All-America Teams and Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet, the distinguished timepiece maker also continues to support two of the AJGA’s most competitive major championships: the Rolex Tournament of Champions and Rolex Girls Junior Championship.
Rolex is also the Founding Corporate Partner of the Achieving Competitive Excellence Grant. The ACE Grant is designed to give top-flight junior golfers the ability to play a national junior golf schedule despite their financial resources. In 2006, with the help of Rolex and various individual donors, more than 60 junior golfers were able to compete in events they otherwise could not afford.