When Fred Funk was growing up in College Park, he boxed for eight years in the same junior Golden Gloves program that produced Sugar Ray Leonard. A weight class ahead of the former world champion, Funk won more fights than he lost but gave it up when he was 16 to follow a more gentlemanly pursuit -- golf.
"He was ranked No. 1 for his age a couple of years, but I know he didn't want to fight Sugar Ray," said Funk's mother, Ruby Wynosky. "I asked him to stop when he was big enough to get more than a bloody nose."
"At 17, you start fighting strictly by weight class, and I didn't
want to meet up with some guy from the Marine Corps," Funk said with a laugh, as well as his own teeth.
Figuratively speaking, Funk has gotten more than his share of bloody noses playing golf. He has been knocked down and out but always has come back for more. And though he hasn't reached the top of his sport, Funk's resilience finally is starting to pay off on the PGA Tour.
Nearly three years after gaining entry to this privileged group of millionaires and would-be millionaires, and two years after losing his playing card, the former University of Maryland golf coach has begun to display the talent, if not yet the consistency, to prove that he belongs playing with the best in the world.
After a seven-week stretch on the road, which has included three of his four top 10 finishes this year and a moment in the national spotlight, Funk will come home this week for the Kemper Open. The $1 million tournament is scheduled to begin Thursday in Potomac, at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel.
It will be a happy homecoming for Funk, who lives in Laurel, with new-found recognition from his sudden rise to 45th on the tour money list, new-found respect generated by a 10-under-par 62 this month in Atlanta and new-found confidence that he will keep his card for at least another year. Maybe longer.
But Funk's struggle isn't too far in the past to be forgotten.
"I wasn't sure I could play with these guys when I came out here," he said recently.
For good reason. When he qualified for the tour in 1989, on his fourth try, Funk was 32, and his resume didn't exactly jump out at you. He had spent seven years coaching at Maryland, his alma mater, and though he been one of the dominant players in the Middle Atlantic PGA, even Funk wondered if he could make this sort of leap.
"I didn't have the background of most of these guys," he said.
It didn't help that he still was recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder or that he suffered from an ulcer, a condition brought on by the medication he was taking for the injury. It didn't help that, at 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, he wasn't very long off the tee even before he got hurt.
And judging by that first season on tour -- 29 tournaments, $59,695 in prize money -- maybe Funk didn't belong. Not that his rookie season was a true barometer of his ability. "I basically dreaded every golf swing I took because it [the shoulder] hurt so much," he said. "I couldn't hit the ball out of my shadow."
The 6,500-yard courses Funk had mastered back home didn't prepare him for the 7,100-yard monsters he faced regularly on the tour. The airport-to-hotel-to-course-to-airport existence for two months at a stretch turned into a nightmarish grind.
"He was very frustrated," said his wife, Marianne, an engineer for the Defense Department. "He felt that he hadn't played the quality of golf he was capable of, and that he hadn't had the opportunity to show what he could do. He had always idolized the guys on the tour, so when he went out there, he thought they were like gods. Now, he believes he can play with them. It's a growing process."
Before the growing could start, the healing process had to be completed. Along with the bum shoulder was a fragile psyche. Funk had shown flashes that he could play as well as anyone on a given day, as happened at the 1987 PGA Championship or the 1989 Kemper, when he was near or at the top of the leader board after the first round.
But could his swing, his confidence and his shoulder hold up for a week or a month or an entire year? After getting back his card on his first try before last season, and after securing it by finishing 91st on the money list, it is a question that Funk no longer asks himself.
"The most satisfying thing for me is knowing that I'm going to keep my card this year," said Funk, who had earned $146,612 before this weekend's Southwestern Bell Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, a tournament in which he shared the lead after an opening-round 65. "My first year, I thought it was hard to get out there. It's much harder to keep your card and stay out.
"If I never did it again, I thought it was good for me to do. It was as lofty a goal as I have ever set for myself. My overall goal now is to keep improving, to become more consistent every week. But I put more pressure on myself than I probably should."