The sign that Fred Funk had arrived among the world's elite golfers came when he won the prestigious Players Championship earlier this year in his adopted hometown of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., at age 48, becoming the oldest winner in the history of what is considered the PGA Tour's fifth major.
Along with the $1.44 million first-prize check and a five-year exemption to all tour events, Funk also received an automatic berth to play in the Merrill Lynch Skins Game. The two-day event will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Trilogy Golf Club in La Quinta, Calif.
The invitation to join three of the game's biggest names - Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam and Fred Couples - even surprised the former University of Maryland golf coach. Funk was unaware that his seventh career tour win came with an opportunity to play in the $1 million made-for-television event.
"I got the phone call a couple months ago, and they said, `Fred, do you want to play in the Skins, the Merrill Lynch Skins, and I go, `Well, how the heck did I get into this one?' " Funk recalled during a teleconference for the event last week. "They said, `From winning the Players.' "
When he heard the rest of the field, Funk said he had one recurring thought.
"When they said that Annika would be the fourth, I was just concerned whether I can out-drive her," Funk said, only half-kidding.
It still is on his mind, considering how much friendly razzing he has taken from Woods since the field was announced. (For the record, Funk's average drive of 270 yards ranks 197th on the PGA Tour, but is 7 yards longer than Sorenstam, who ranks fifth on the LPGA Tour.)
"He says, `You better not let Annika out-drive you,' " said Funk, who has made his career on driving straight off the tee, with earnings of more than $2.8 million this season bringing his career total to nearly $18 million since making the tour full time in 1989. "I've already assumed that she's going to out-drive me."
Funk and Sorenstam recently found themselves talking about the Skins Game at another made-for-television event, the ADT Skills Challenge, which features players from the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours, and will be televised later in the year. Funk finished second there, winning $118,000.
"I gave him a hard time that I was going to out-drive him," joked Sorenstam, who has become one of the longest - and straightest - hitters on the LPGA Tour in what is already a Hall of Fame career. "He was kind of the one that brought it up. He must have something up his sleeve for the Skins."
Funk seems as excited about the possibility of playing against Sorenstam as he does about facing Woods, with whom he was paired in the final round of the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where Funk's fourth-place finish was his best performance in a major.
"I just really love Annika," Funk said. "I've become a huge fan of Annika's after the way she handled herself at Colonial [where in 2003 she became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in nearly 60 years]. Now that I've gotten to know her, I like her even more."
Considering that Woods' participation in this year's event was jeopardized by an ankle injury suffered in a tournament last week in Japan - as of yesterday, no decision had been reached - Sorenstam could become the main attraction. Just as she was at Colonial.
Sorenstam has said that Colonial would be the only regular tour event she would ever play.
"I think the experience I had at Colonial was all that I needed," she said last week. "When I look back on my career, probably one of the greatest things I've ever done - not performance-wise, but still to be a part of it and the preparation and so forth - I really don't want to do it again."
When he looks back on his career, Funk will certainly rank winning The Players Championship and being on the most recent Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams among his top achievements, but the Merrill Lynch Skins Game could be up there as well.
Funk still seems to be in a bit of shock - and awe - that he is headed to the California desert to play with a group of players who have combined to win 127 events on their respective tours, including 18 majors, as well as more than $92 million.
"It's still unbelievable to me," Funk said.