Now, it really is fun and games

Golf: Ex-Maryland coach Fred Funk breaks from the sport's normally staid etiquette, gaining fans with high-fives and non-traditional antics en route to an impressive year.

Golf

September 18, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - A friendly game of pingpong turned Fred Funk from one of golf's obscure millionaires into one of the PGA Tour's most celebrated players.

It happened this summer, when Funk had a few friends from the neighborhood in this Jacksonville suburb over to his house. Among them was David Duval, who lives across the inlet from Funk and his wife, Sharon.

"We were all just having a great time and you'd hit shots and go, `Yeahhhh' or `Whoaaaaa,' " Funk recalled recently. "I thought, `Wouldn't it be neat if you react [in golf] like all other sports instead of it being taboo to do that?' "

With the help of a suddenly hot putter, a player whose claim to fame had been as one of the game's straightest hitters and hardest workers started fist-pumping and high-fiving his way across the country.

He reached a crescendo last month at the PGA Championship near Minneapolis, where Funk led the tournament for two rounds and wound up tied for fourth, his highest finish ever in a major.

"It was not something you can force; it just happened and grew as the week went on," said Funk, 46. "I went in with a real light heart and a conscious thing that I was going to have a fun time."

The support for the former Maryland golf coach was so overwhelming that it seemed to eclipse the cheers for the world's greatest player, Tiger Woods, when the two were paired for the final round at Hazeltine.

"I think they enjoyed seeing someone interact with them, and look like they were having a good time on the golf course, instead of not smiling all the time," said Funk, whose theatrics even had the normally robotic Woods laughing.

"I didn't react [just] because I was leading the PGA, because I was playing well. It got to where it became a frenzy. It also got to where I wanted to get on the green and I couldn't wait to give them something to yell about."

Though Funk eventually ran out of heroics and finished six strokes behind Rich Beem, the frenzy has followed him. The next week at the NEC Invitational outside Seattle, a group of shirtless fans spelled out "Fred" and "Funk" on their chests and backs.

Though it is doubtful fans in Ireland will have the same reaction to Funk during this week's American Express World Golf Championship, which starts tomorrow, his image has forever changed.

In demand

He is suddenly sought after, with interviews on Jim Rome's radio show and The Best Damn Sports Show Period and a swing segment scheduled for a coming article in Golf Digest.

Currently playing Taylor Made golf clubs, Funk also has been approached about some new endorsement deals. "We're just trying to get the right fit," said Gary Verbal of Access Sports and Entertainment, which represents Funk.

Who would have Funk it?

This recent hot streak, which started with a second-place finish at the B.C. Open in late July and included another second-place tie at the Buick Open the week before the PGA, has catapulted Funk into golf's elite.

Funk has already earned a career-high $1,977,578 and is 13th on the tour's money list. Finishing in the Top 20 - something he has done only once, in 1999 - would get Funk an invitation to all four of next year's majors.

At a time when most players his age are starting to wind down their PGA Tour careers and gear up for the Senior Tour, Funk apparently still has plenty of dreams to chase and more than enough fire in his gut.

Funk credits his late start - he didn't qualify for the tour until he was 32, after coaching seven years at Maryland, his alma mater - with keeping him fresh and his eight-year marriage to Sharon with keeping things in the right perspective.

"I've always had this goal to see how good I can get," said Funk, who has won five tour events and earned more than $10 million in his career. "I didn't anticipate this happening right now, but I've had the goal to be the best 47-year-old who ever played the tour or the best 48-year-old or best 49-year-old.

"I still have the desire to put the effort in, and I enjoy playing. I'm going to stay driven to do that. It's a personal thing. I want to beat these young kids in my way."

Sharon Funk, who met her future husband the week he won the 1992 Houston Open and started dating him a year later, recalled a conversation she had with former LPGA star Sandra Post two years ago in Canada.

Post was talking about what a great career Fred Funk had put together - had, as if most of the accomplishments were in the past.

"Fred had almost won the tournament [in 1999] and the next year he was kind of hurt," recalled Sharon Funk. "Sandra said, `He's really had a great career. He's made a great run of it.' In the back of my mind, I wanted to say, `Sandra, he's not even there yet. He's not peaked.'

"I truly have believed that, my whole time I have known Fred. I know the mental side of him and where he was letting himself down. A lot of it was what he wasn't doing in the last month. ... This may be part of the peak, his climb to the top."

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