He's uncommonly good

Fred Funk: He's living every golfer's dream in the Ryder Cup, but he had his own way of realizing it.

Golf

September 16, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He is the oldest American player ever to make a U.S. Ryder Cup team on his own merit, and one of the more unlikely ever to play in the history of the event.

Then again, how many professional golfers have ever followed the same script as Fred Funk?

As part of a 12-man team that will try to regain the Cup from Europe when the biennial competition begins tomorrow at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, Funk, 48, has accomplished great feats despite starting late, hitting short and winning only a handful of times in a 16-year PGA Tour career.

A former player, coach and assistant club pro at the University of Maryland who grew up in College Park, Funk wasn't raised to be a champion in the manner of a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson. Nor did Funk have the golfing genes of a Jay Haas, whose uncle, Bob Goalby, won the Masters.

"He's the epitome of the American dream," said longtime friend Woody FitzHugh, who has known Funk since their years together playing the Mid-Atlantic PGA circuit. "I call Fred my earthly hero. In my mind he's a hero because he did overcome a lot of odds and he's still getting better, which is more amazing."

FitzHugh, who played the tour for three years in the early 1980s and owns Woody's Range in Herndon, Va., believes the epiphany for Funk took place at the Erie Open in 1987. By getting up-and-down for par from 120 feet on the last hole, Funk beat out a field that included 60 tour pros.

It wasn't just the fact that Funk had won by a stroke over respected tour pro Denis Watson that impressed FitzHugh, but what had happened the night before the final round.

"Somewhere around 7:30, 8 o'clock, I needed to get something to eat," recalled FitzHugh. "I asked Fred to come, but he said, `I need to work out this putting a little bit.' I came back after dinner and it was totally dark. He was putting by the clubhouse lights that were near the green. When he won, I thought that was the turning point."

The I-95 circuit

Funk, who had also supported himself by delivering newspapers for the old Washington Star, looks back fondly on those years of chasing his dream along Interstate 95, playing against guys like FitzHugh and others who might have gotten a sniff of the PGA Tour before winding up owning a driving range or working in a pro shop.

"I dominated the [circuit] up there, and that really gave me the spark to keep going," said Funk, who won the circuit's Player of the Year award in 1983 and also captured three straight Mid-Atlantic PGA championships and two Maryland Opens. "That's where the confidence came from, the belief that I was good enough at least to get on the tour. And once I got on the tour, my goals kept getting higher."

When he finally made the PGA Tour, a few months before his 33rd birthday in 1989, Funk was bothered by a bad shoulder and, in his words, "a little overwhelmed" by sharing locker rooms with players who seemed more like movie stars. After three years, Funk was just about ready to ask for his old job back in College Park.

"A couple of weeks before the 1992 Houston Open, I was probably as low as I could get confidence-wise," said Funk, who had finished a career-best 73rd on the money list the previous year. "I didn't think I was going to go any further and then out of nowhere, I won that week. That kind of got me going."

Funk finished the year 34th on the money list, but it was around that time that his first marriage was unraveling. His career floundered, until he met Sharon Archer, the daughter of retired U.S. Rep. Bill Archer of Texas. Funk married her in 1994, and his career took off.

Sharon Funk doesn't take credit for her husband's success, but those who know the couple believe she has provided a perfect balance of tough love and unwavering support. Though she gave up her caddying duties years ago, she travels with her husband and their two home-schooled children full time.

"I'm not always saying, `It's going to be OK,'" Sharon Funk said last week from Toronto while her husband prepared for the Canadian Open. "I'm really always kicking him in the pants. Fred is a worrier. I know if he would just let himself go, he would excel."

This year has been particularly difficult. Funk has played some of the most inconsistent golf of his career, mixing four top-10 finishes with nine missed cuts, the most he's had since 1991. Part of it has been the pressure to make the Ryder Cup team.

"It's all self-imposed stuff to make a team," said Funk. "I would never have a chance to make another Ryder Cup, so this was a huge deal. I didn't want to look back and say I didn't give it a chance."

His wife is even more blunt.

"It's been a total, 100-percent grind to get him to where he is right now," said Sharon Funk. "That's Fred. He's not one who believes he's one of the best players in the world, or could be. If he did believe it, he'd probably be winning tournaments. ... That's my biggest deal with him, to get him to believe how good he is."

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