Funk nears age of decision

Turning 50 in June, he wavers between PGA, Champions

March 23, 2006|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

During his early years on the PGA Tour, Fred Funk often wondered if he belonged among the world's best players. As he approaches his 50th birthday, the former University of Maryland coach is trying to figure out which segment of that population best fits his decidedly old school game.

Should he remain where he is, trying to hang with Tiger and Phil and Ernie as well as the even younger guns who will be at the TPC at Sawgrass for this year's Players Championship, in which starting today Funk will defend the biggest of his eight career titles?

Or should Funk, despite the two-year exemption he received for winning what many have called the tour's "fifth major," take a game seemingly more suited for the Champions Tour and play with millionaires closer to his age once he hits the half-century mark in the middle of June?

Even Funk isn't sure which direction his late-blooming career should take.

"I'm having a hard time answering or even analyzing how I'm thinking," Funk said recently. "Because I've got this Champions Tour on the horizon, I'm excited in a lot of ways to move over. I'm also hesitant to move over because I still want to stay competitive out here [on the PGA Tour]."

What Funk really wants is another chance to play in the Ryder Cup, something he did for the first time two years ago on the losing U.S. team at Oakland Hills outside Detroit. He is considered a long shot to make this year's team that will play Europe in Ireland come September.

After finishing a career-best 11th on the money list last year with more than $2.8 million in earnings, Funk will likely have to win a real major to get near the top 10 on the Ryder Cup points list. Admittedly, he is getting ahead of himself.

"I think I'm putting a little too much pressure on myself in ways where I really want to make the Ryder Cup team," said Funk, who also played on the last two U.S. teams in the Presidents Cup. "That's been my No. 1 goal ... to finish in the top 30 [on this year's money list] is the other goal."

A traditionally slow starter who typically plays better in warmer weather, Funk has lived up to his name so far in 2006. The West Coast swing was a waste for Funk, who missed the cut twice, was eliminated from the Match Play Championship in the opening round and finished no better than 26th.

Though Funk has recovered from a strained muscle in his chest that had an impact on his swing for the second half of last season, and his putting has improved since leaving the bumpy greens in California, his best showing this year was a tie for 10th at Bay Hill last week.

"To me it's all about putting. I have to be able to start scoring," said Funk, who is currently 183rd in putting. "When you're not hitting good golf shots and not making them and then you miss greens, no matter how good you chip it, all of a sudden everything goes down the toilet."

Funk also knows he has to get his problems worked out before June 14, the day he turns 50 and the day before this year's U.S. Open begins at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y. A few weeks later, Funk will make his Champions Tour debut in the U.S. Senior Open at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan.

"It's always a little scary to go out on the unknown there," said Funk, who travels the tour with his wife, Sharon, and their two children. "We have a comfort level out here with everything. We know where we're going to go and don't have to wonder where the locker room and everything is, like a rookie again.

"It's just the fact, do I want to turn the page to another chapter? Am I really ready to do that yet? I'm not really sure. I still pinch myself to the fact that I've had the success that I've had out here, especially this late in my career. But I still feel like I can do more." don.markus@baltsun.com

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