POTOMAC -- Fred Funk came to the Tournament Players Club at Avenel for last year's Kemper Open ready to make his breakthrough on the PGA Tour. The week before, he had been in the hunt at The Colonial and eventually finished tied for sixth. Two weeks before that, his opening-round 62 in Atlanta had made headlines.
The homecoming for the former University of Maryland golf coach didn't prove to be a happy one: He missed the cut for the second straight year. It started a prolonged slump, which bottomed out in the final round of the PGA Championship in August. The slump, as well as a persistent shoulder injury, began to raise questions about Funk's future on the tour.
"I had secured my playing [card] privileges early, and I did get a little too lax," said Funk, who made $192,212 of his season's earnings of $227,915 before the Kemper. "I told myself to go out and enjoy it, not get too upset with a bad round. I can't play like that. I've got to be pretty intense to play well."
When Funk returns home this week to play in the 1992 Kemper Open -- the $1.1 million tournament begins Thursday -- the breakthrough has been made and, with arthroscopic surgery last September, the shoulder is as good as it's been in a while. A two-shot victory in the Shell Houston Open earlier this month was worth $216,000 in prize money and, more important, an immeasurable amount of professional security.
But, even in the afterglow, the questions about Funk linger. Is his slump, which has continued this year, over? Was the victory, which earned Funk a two-year exemption and an invitation to next year's Masters, merely a happy one-week interlude or a launching pad for a more consistent career? Will Funk, one of the oldest first-time winners in tour history, win again?
"I don't think it was a fluke," said Funk, 36, whose best finish this year other than Houston was a tie for 22nd at the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic. "But I'm sure some people think it was."
If others do, it is certainly understandable. Funk's first victory might have come right out of a fairy tale, but his career is even more implausible. Newspaper dispatcher-turned-college golf coach makes tour on fourth try in 1988. Loses playing card in 1989, but gets it back later that year. Starts making progress, reinjures shoulder, gets operated on by famous orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe.
Even Funk had some doubts about how long he could stay on tour without any signs of significant progress, with a patient wife and an infant son at home in Laurel, with the astronomical tour expenses piling up as quickly as the missed cuts. It got to the point where Funk had begun to think about, if not seriously consider, looking for a club job.
"It's not that I was playing poorly," Funk said. "I was making cuts, but I wasn't making a lot of money. I really thought I could win out here. But you get your head beat in a few times, and you begin to wonder."
Said Funk's wife, Marianne: "I don't think he ever really thought about quitting, but he was very discouraged. He was beginning to feel the pressure. Nobody wants to go back to Q [qualifying] school."
Funk recalled what happened at last summer's PGA. In contention going into the final round at Crooked Stick outside Indianapolis, Funk shot the day's highest score -- 81. It caused him to free fall to 57th and cost him an invitation to this year's Masters, among other things.
"I got off to a bad start, and it just snowballed," said Funk, who hit his first two drives into the woods. "The 18th hole just seemed to get farther away with every shot. I wanted that round so bad, maybe too much. I put too much heat on myself."
The recurring injury to his left shoulder -- the result of an abnormally wide spacing of the bones around his rotator cuff -- added to Funk's woes. After a promising start, Funk finished the year ranked 76th. Not low enough to lose his card, but certainly not high enough to quash the doubts.
It didn't get better this year. After missing the cut at the MCI Heritage Classic in Hilton Head, S.C. -- the third time in nine tournaments he failed to play into the weekend -- Funk decided to take off the following week. He went home and relaxed before he rejoined the tour in Houston.
"I came out very refreshed," he said.
It showed. After solid rounds of 68 and 72 helped him make the cut, a 62 gave Funk the lead going into the final round. It was uncharted territory for Funk, a position he hadn't been in since his days on the Mid-Atlantic PGA circuit.
What helped Funk throughout the final round was that the biggestnames in the field at Houston -- Fred Couples and Davis Love III, the tour's two leading money-winners -- were way back in the pack. It also helped that none of those in contention made a serious charge.
Still, it was difficult to hold together his lead and his emotions.
"I had the pressure of being the leader from the time I started to the time I finished," Funk said. "It proved a lot to me. The only shot I regretted was the one on the last hole."