Funk weathers storms, reigns at Players

Former Maryland coach scores biggest career win


March 29, 2005|By Steve Elling | Steve Elling,ORLANDO SENTINEL

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- They not only had to batten down the hatches at the weather-battered The Players Championship, they also needed to batten down the hats.

In a scene that was emblematic of the week in general, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was spotted leaning into a 40-mph gust of wind as he walked up the clubhouse steps and into the lunchroom yesterday at TPC at Sawgrass. A hand was firmly pressed atop his head, an attempt at keeping his golf cap from blowing into the Atlantic Ocean.

So, of course, when feisty Fred Funk finally finished an up-and-down day and equally uneven week, grinding out a winning par on the difficult 18th hole, he removed his hat and emphatically flung it to the ground.

When Luke Donald's putt to tie on the 18th skirted the hole to seal Funk's biggest career victory, the former Maryland coach's exhalation was stiffer than the day's biggest gust. At 9-under par, he finished a slim stroke ahead of Donald, Tom Lehman and Scott Verplank.

"I can't believe I won this thing; I'm overwhelmed," said Funk, 48, choking back emotion. "I just can't believe it. I'm beyond words right now. I didn't fathom this happening coming into this week."

He means last week, actually, but after five days of rain-sodden play, it was easy to lose track of the details. Funk, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, became the oldest player to win the so-called fifth major by a whopping six years. Then again, after a herky-jerky week of fits and starts, everybody felt a good bit grayer.

"I never make anything easy for myself," Funk said after recording his seventh career win.

Playing a punitive course that averaged 76.512 shots in the final round -- the highest single-day total in tournament history by a quarter of a shot -- Funk did what the field and fan base had been doing since Thursday.

He suffered, endured and slogged along, making the best of it on an unforgiving layout that showed all its teeth. There were 16 rounds in the 80s in the final round, and at one point, five players were double-figures below par in the final round, though none of them managed to stay there.

Funk ratcheted up the tension himself by three-putting Nos. 14, 15 and 17 to keep a half-dozen players within striking range. Most amazingly, as he stood safely aboard the island green on the tricky 17th, he was two strokes clear of the field and seemingly all set for an easy finish, but he three-putted from 26 feet.

"I hung on out there -- barely," said Funk, a 2004 Ryder Cup player who entered the event ranked No. 59 in the world rankings. "It's a great feeling. ... I don't think it will sink in for a while."

Against one of the strongest fields in golf, Funk was the perfect tonic on a soggy course where the calf-high rough hadn't been mowed for eight days. For Funk, the most accurate driver on the tour, though definitely not the longest, short and straight was the perfect solution.

"I felt a little like Herbie the Volkswagen, the Love Bug," said Funk, 5 feet 8. "I'm hitting my little pea-shooter out there and the bombers are blowing it 40 yards by me. I tried not to let it bother me because I knew it was more important to be in the fairway."

As Funk teed off on No. 18, he was one shot clear of five players. After hitting his approach into the green-side bunker, he made a 5-footer to save par, tossed his hat into the green and sweated out the finish of Joe Durant and Donald, who finished two groups behind him.

In a week that was as disjointed as any in tournament history, it marked Funk's first par since the 11th hole. There was nothing predictable about the entire event, including the manic Monday ending under punitively windy conditions.

Here's how brutal it was in the words of Ponte Vedra Beach resident Vijay Singh, who uses Sawgrass as his home course -- and everybody knows what it takes to interrupt his practice regimen, which is the stuff of legend.

"If it's this breezy, I don't go out," Singh said. "I don't even hit balls when it's this windy."

Players didn't have that luxury once the tournament started, and stopped, and started, and stopped. Worse, the leaders were forced to play 33 holes in the bluster, meaning most of the scoreboard movement was in reverse. Funk played 32 holes yesterday.

A Tour official said that if Funk had missed his 5-footer on the 18th, there is no way the four-man playoff would have been started yesterday, forcing a return this morning.

Tiger Woods shot 75 and finished tied for 53rd, marking his eighth straight round in the 70s dating to last week's first round at Bay Hill, marking his longest stretch without recording a score in the 60s since 1999. It also marked his worst result since finishing in a tie for 56th at Bay Hill in 1999. (Scores, 8E)

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