Off a victory, Funk swings for more

Golf: Players event shows that the former Terps coach, 48, can be a champion before reaching the Champions Tour.

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April 07, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Fred Funk wasn't even off the course during the final round of The Players Championship when the e-mails and phone messages started pouring in to his nearby home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

"I had one friend call saying, `I know you're not finished yet, but keep up the good work,'" Funk recalled yesterday, as he practiced chip shots at Augusta National in preparation for today's opening round of the 69th Masters.

Funk kept it up and, after three-putting away a two-shot lead, made a 5-foot par putt on the final hole to win by a stroke over England's Luke Donald on March 28. When Funk's seventh PGA Tour victory was secured, the messages kept coming.

They came from many of Funk's fellow pros and from friends going back to his days as the golf coach at the University of Maryland. Jack Nicklaus called. So did Florida governor Jeb Bush, Yankees manager Joe Torre and former tennis great Ivan Lendl.

"Elvis and John Lennon, too," joked Mark Long, Funk's caddie and former player in College Park. "I thought that was cool."

Kidding aside, it was perhaps the most popular victory in golf since Phil Mickelson's win here a year ago.

It speaks not only of Funk's engaging personality, but of the fact that a player who has long been admired for his determination had reached the pinnacle of his career at the ripe old age of 48. Funk was the oldest winner at the prestigious Players Championship by nearly seven years.

"For one, I have a hard time thinking I'm 48," said Funk, who'll turn 49 in June. "To beat all those young guys, that's really good."

Surprise win

After making last year's U.S. Ryder Cup team and the Presidents Cup team the previous year, Funk called the victory "the defining moment of my career." It was also the first time Funk's 78-year-old mother, Ruby, had ever seen her son win a tournament in person.

The unlikely win came out of nowhere, on the heels of solid but otherwise unspectacular performances that included only one top 10 this year (tie for seventh at the Nissan Open) and two weeks after he had missed the cut at Doral.

Sharon Funk suspected that her husband had started counting down to when he would be of age for the 50-and-over Champions Tour.

"Three weeks before that tournament, I gave him a pep talk and told him, `I don't know if the fire is in your belly. It looks like it's gone,'" Sharon Funk recalled during yesterday's annual par-3 tournament.

Not only did Funk hold off the challenge of Donald, a 27-year-old Englishman considered one of the tour's up-and-coming players, but he did it under severe conditions on what is generally one of the tougher courses and against one of the tour's more competitive fields.

"The biggest sense of accomplishment is that I hit quality golf shots coming in and I still won the golf tournament with three three-putts in the last five holes," said Funk, whose victory was worth $1.4 million and jumped him to No. 5 on this year's money list. "I made the clutch putt at the end and I was not afraid to make good golf swings. That's what I'm most proud of."

Unofficially called golf's "fifth" major, The Players Championship is by far the most prestigious event Funk has ever won. He had been in contention at some recent majors, finishing tied for fourth at the 2002 PGA Championship and sixth in last year's U.S. Open, but nerves and self-doubt always seemed to get in the way.

"I definitely had a sense of calmness that I don't have every week," said Funk. "I hit the ball really solid and I never seemed to panic. When I hit my bad shots, it wasn't that big a deal. I was just really focused on trying to get myself in position."

Quiet confidence

Unlike other times in his career, Funk didn't get down on himself after three-putting for bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes, understanding that the 30-mph winds and the lightning-fast greens were playing havoc on everyone else's games, as well.

"Even after those two three-putts, what I liked was that he was mad," said Long. "You want a guy to be mad instead of shocked. It seemed like his focus was present tense all the time. That's a tough thing to do. His ball-striking, especially the lines on his irons, was exceptional."

The shot that probably won the tournament for Funk was his second on the par-5 16th hole, a 3-iron from 235 yards. He stuck it to within 25 feet and made a birdie to get back the lead, then held on after three-putting the infamous par-3 17th from 50 feet.

"Everyone forgets that we played 32 holes that day. Tthat wasn't an 18-hole sprint, that was almost 36 holes in horrible weather," said Funk. "It was just very taxing. I'm still tired emotionally from all that. It was just an amazing day. To come out on top, at home, it was a big deal."

More to come?

Funk doesn't think it's his last win before he heads for the Champions Tour.

"It makes me believe that you never know when lightning's going to strike. You just keep working at it, if I can get a golf course that favors my game," said Funk.

Though his victory at The Players Championship has made him something of a darkhorse pick here, his history at Augusta is not exactly stellar. He has missed the cut the past two years and in four of his past five trips to the Masters.

"This is a different animal," said Funk. "Everyone says you can carry it over here. Maybe I can, but I have to play extremely good in really good conditions in order to get into contention. The greens are so severe and it's much more of a bomber's course. I think it will prove out when you see the leader boards at the end of the week."

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