In name game, Funk can't win for losing Upswing: When it comes to building a reputation, Maryland's former coach has a knack for picking the wrong time to finish ahead of a tournament pack.

July 23, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He has won more events on the PGA Tour than another late bloomer named Tom Lehman. But his most recent victory, in last week's Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, was typical of the first four wins for Fred Funk. It was obscured by something bigger happening in the world of golf.

This time, it was Mark O'Meara's playoff win at Royal Birkdale in the 127th British Open.

"I've won five tournaments, and I've never been on the cover of Golf World," Funk said yesterday.

Funk, 42, has never been considered the cover-boy type since coming out on the tour in 1989. The former University of Maryland coach has been known for being a workhorse, a grinder who has averaged more than 30 tournaments a year and has earned more than $4 million in his career.

His two-shot victory Sunday at Annandale Golf Club near Jackson, Miss., was worth $216,000, and pushed Funk to 28th on the year's money list with $641,542. Just as important was pushing past the mental barrier he'd built since he last won 22 months ago.

"It was a big relief," Funk said by telephone from Providence, R.I., where he was staying for this week's CVS Classic (formerly the Ideon Classic, another of his victories) in nearby Sutton, Mass. "I've been knocking at the door for a while. It felt good to be playing well enough to win and then go ahead and finish it."

Funk thought that would happen in last month's Kemper Open. Leading after the first three rounds, Funk self-destructed Sunday by playing the first five holes in 6-over par. He got back a measure of respect by playing the last 13 even par, and he wound up tied for third.

Though Funk put a positive spin on his final-round 77 immediately afterward, it devastated him. He didn't sleep that night -- "The minute my head hit the pillow, the replay machine was on," he said -- and wound up getting knocked out in a playoff in the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier the next day.

It was the first time in eight years that he failed to play in the Open. The following week, in the Buick Classic in Harrison, N.Y., he shot an opening-round 74 and withdrew during a second-round rain delay. He went home to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and had a few sessions with his unofficial sports psychologist -- his wife, Sharon.

"The Kemper hurt him more than people think," Sharon Funk said yesterday by telephone from their home. "It was something he wanted to win very badly."

Whatever Funk worked on during a two-week hiatus from the tour has obviously proved beneficial. Since returning for the Greater Hartford Open in early July, he has put together a stretch in which he has finished no worse than a tie for fifth, in the Quad City Classic, and has shot no higher than even par. He has played his last three events in a cumulative 44-under par.

It has allowed Funk to again think about his primary goal coming into the season: finishing in the top 30, which would gain him a spot in this year's Tour Championship and qualify him for next year's U.S. Open and Masters. His victory last week gave him a two-year exemption for all other tour events.

"It was a weaker field, but I was hoping that if I got into position to win, I would play like a veteran. But I was nervous as any rookie out there," said Funk, who came into the final round with a share of the lead, played the front nine in even par and found himself four shots behind Franklin Langham.

"Instead of trying to hit good shots, I was trying not to hit bad ones. Just knowing I can do it [win] now will be a big help."

The victory was also typical for another reason: Four of his five wins, as well as a win in the 1993 Mexican Open, have come in hot weather.

As Sharon Funk said: "Like Curtis Strange, Fred's won when he's sweating."

The increase in temperature isn't the only factor in Funk's improved play. There was the much-publicized laser vision surgery he underwent two days before the start of the Kemper Open.

That operation helped Funk's putting, which has jumped from around 140th to 78th (30th in putts per round). As a result, he's 39th in scoring at 70.67 shots a round.

As for his swing: "I don't think you can do much to somebody's golf swing who hits it as straight as Fred does," his teacher, Bill Moretti, said of a player who perennially ranks in the top three in hitting fairways. "He doesn't have a major weakness. We work on what he has and build on it."

What Funk hasn't learned is a sense of timing when it comes to his victories. All of Lehman's tournament victories have come in big tournaments, from the Memorial in 1995 and the Colonial National Invitation in 1996 to the British Open and Tour Championship in 1997.

"The first win [in Houston in 1995], I just fell into it. I didn't know what to expect," said Funk. "Now, I know I'm good enough. It's just a matter of time before I win one of the bigger tournaments."

Next month's PGA Championship would qualify.

Winning it would also make Funk a cover boy somewhere.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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