July 10, 2008

Front And Center

He is not long and he has trouble getting noticed (by some magazines), but Players' champ Fred Funk is a legitimate big stick

Funk, a self-proclaimed "pea-shooter," recently tested an oversize driver at the World Golf Village

Funk, a self-proclaimed "pea-shooter," recently tested an oversize driver at the World Golf Village

Little-known fact about Fred Funk: He had never been on the cover of Golf World until this week.

Why is that a big deal? Because Funk, 48, has seven PGA Tour wins and—although no "official" records are kept—it's believed no other golfer has had that many tour victories and never been on our cover. (Funk certainly doesn't doubt that—trust us.) So when he won the Players Championship five weeks ago, he admits that despite all the hubbub that resulted, he couldn't wait to see Golf World. The date of that issue was April 1, but the cover that greeted Funk was, sadly, no April Fool's Day joke. It was a picture of Tiger Woods, with a headline touting the upcoming Masters. Funk's Players win—delayed 24 hours because of lousy weather—wasn't even mentioned.

"To be on the cover," Funk said recently, "I felt like I had to win the Grand Slam or something."

The story would be funnier if it didn't exacerbate Funk's one noticeable character flaw: Though engaging and popular with players, sponsors and tournament officials, Funk fights a shaky self-confidence—not entirely surprising from a guy who began his sports career as a pint-sized boxer; got cut from his college golf team and didn't really make his mark there until he became its head coach; ranks 182nd on tour in driving distance and doesn't scare anyone with his putter; and even now, 16 years and more than $16 million after first earning his tour card, behaves like he's just lucky to be here.

"I've always said I'm glad golf is such a hard game because if it wasn't more people would be doing it well," says Funk. "There's a fine line between being good enough and not being good enough. Somehow I figured out a way to be good enough and to still be getting better at almost age 49."

When Funk is in one of his deepest, you know, funks—which usually strike while he's playing some big-hitter's layout like Augusta National—he begins thinking about the Champions Tour and its shorter courses. As he said when an official pointed out that one of the perks of his Players victory was a five-year tour exemption: "What am I gonna do with that?"

But self-deprecation, a great iron game and the straightest tee ball on tour can be powerful forces. Like the time a couple of years ago when he was playing a casual round with friends at Pablo Creek, the private club near his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he belongs. The 18th hole has a back tee that sits on a small island of grass in the middle of a marsh. Funk, naturally, split the fairway with his 270-yard drive, and by the time he and his companions reached his ball, a spirited discussion about Funk's uncanny precision had ensued. On a whim, Funk teed his ball, turned around and, using his driver, belted the sphere back toward the tee. It didn't just land and come to rest on the tee—it stopped directly between the black markers. Skeptical? Larry Moody, the pastor who leads the PGA Tour's weekly Bible study group, was a witness.

"He's just a bulldog," says Jack Nicklaus, who captained Funk at the 2003 Presidents Cup in South Africa, "a good, steady, solid, down-the-middle player. He's not going to dazzle anybody with a lot of very low scores, but he's going to play good solid golf. And good solid golf ain't all that bad."

Funk grew up on Bridgewater Street in College Park, Md., about a 5-iron from the 14th green at the University of Maryland GC. But golf wasn't his first sport. One of his neighbors, Joe Gardella, who had been 49-1 as a Golden Gloves boxer, was organizing a team at the Adelphi Boys Club, and brought Fred, 8 years old and 56 pounds soaking wet, to the first tryout. Fred stayed on the team until he was 16, boxing in the winter and then switching to golf as soon as the ground thawed, first at Paint Branch GC, a nine-hole county-run course near his home, and later the University Course.

Future world champion Sugar Ray Leonard was a Maryland Boys Club boxer at the same time as Funk, but—thankfully for Fred—the two were never in the same weight class. Fred, whose best showing was runner-up in a county qualifier one year, admits his most vivid memory was a clocking he suffered at an exhibition match at Virginia's Lorton Prison, producing just one set of the many blackened eyes, bloodied lips and broken noses he suffered over the years. It eventually dawned on him golf was a safer sport. As he explains, "You can't box and not get hurt."

Funk's entree to golf came as a caddie for his stepfather, an auditor for Maryland's Department of Transportation (Funk never knew his biological dad). His mother, Ruby, claims the bag was bigger than Fred. "After that," she says, "I never had to worry about Fred. He was always at the golf course."

After high school Fred enrolled at Maryland and tried out for the golf team. He didn't make it, flunked out of school and moved on to a nearby community college, Prince George's, where he became a key player on a team that twice qualified for the national junior college championship. After two years he returned to Maryland and got a second chance from Terrapins coach Randy Hoffman, but he tore up a knee skiing in Maine and was sidelined for six months. He threw himself into his studies instead, made the dean's list and earned a degree in law enforcement. After graduating, he failed in a brief stint on the Space Coast Mini-Tour in Florida and returned home, where he went to work for a temporary employment agency. Shortly thereafter, Hoffman, by then Maryland's assistant athletic director, called to offer him the job as the school's golf coach. The salary was $18,500 a year, not counting what he could make giving lessons at the University Course and playing in local tournaments. Funk, who had been cleaning warehouses and painting truck depots while trying to get better as a golfer, quickly accepted.

Fred Funk

Funk's longtime caddie, Mark Long, one of his former golfers at Maryland, describes Funk's coaching style as somewhat unstructured. Long recalls a tournament at Yale. Maryland athletic department officials had just announced a new policy banning alcohol on all team trips. Meanwhile, the Maryland football team was playing on television and because the golf team's hotel in New Haven didn't have cable, the squad headed to a sports bar to watch the game. "We weren't in there five minutes before everybody's looking at Fred," says Long. "He's like, 'All right, go ahead.' Pretty soon the pitchers of beer were flying. That describes Fred as a coach."

Funk's approach can be attributed to his age—he was barely older than the guys he was coaching—and because the Terps weren't nearly the powerhouse that some Atlantic Coast Conference programs were. But mostly it was because he assumed, incorrectly, his players were as committed to getting better as he was. Billy Andrade, who played for Wake Forest during this period, recalls Funk practicing more than his charges. "That happened every single tournament," remembers Andrade. "[Fred] never left the range. His guys would warm up and he'd say, 'Go get 'em.' Then he'd hit balls all day."

The work paid off. Funk won the 1984 Foot-Joy National Assistant Championship, then qualified for the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where he tied for 23rd—one shot better and he would have earned an invitation to the Masters the following year. Appearances in the 1986 and '87 U.S. Opens followed, and in 1987 he qualified for his first PGA Championship. He led for 22 holes before the pressure got to him and he faded to T-47.

Funk first earned his card in 1989 and the first three years were a struggle. While battling to retain his exemption—finishing 157th, 91st and 73rd in earnings—his first marriage was disintegrating. He had met his wife, Marianne, at Maryland, where she was a mechanical engineering student who went to work for the defense department. In August 1991 their son, Eric, was born, but their relationship worsened. The following May, Funk found himself at the TPC at The Woodlands for the Shell Houston Open, coming off two missed cuts in three weeks and time spent polishing his résumé, which he figured he would need once he lost his card. But after struggling to make the cut, he shot a third-round 62 to take a one-shot lead, then followed up with a 70 the next day to win. That night at the post-tournament party, he was introduced to Sharon Archer, the daughter of Texas congressman Bill Archer. Suddenly, the band started playing "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)," and Funk pulled Sharon onto the dance floor for a spontaneous (yet spirited) twirl. They didn't see each other again until the 1993 Shell Houston Open, but by then Fred's divorce from Marianne was final. In June 1994 he and Sharon married.

Fred Funk

As a congressman's daughter, Sharon had grown up in Langley, Va., going to school with the children of other political figures like H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, and participating in tennis, softball, gymnastics and cheerleading. But her best sport was golf—she played well enough to enter LPGA Q School one year (Fred caddied for her and, as Sharon is quick to point out, forgot the umbrella). But she was happy to settle into a different role—that of tour wife. Today, Fred and Sharon have two children: Taylor, 9, and Perri Leigh, 5. (Fred's son from his first marriage, Eric, is now 13 and living in Maryland with his mother, who is remarried. "We have a great relationship," says Fred. "For a bad situation, it's a great situation.")

Funk's career since then can be best described as a steady rise marked by the occasional periods of self-doubt—perhaps natural in someone who worked as hard as Funk does to compete against rivals who regularly outdrive him by 40 or 50 yards. He won four more times between 1995 and 1998 (lower-profile events such as the Buick Challenge, B.C. Open and Deposit Guaranty Classic), but the tournament he dwells on most was his loss at the 1998 Kemper Open, his hometown event, where he blew a 54-hole lead in front of his family and friends with a final-round 77. "That hurt a lot," he still says today.

He endured a five-year winless drought from 1999-2003, but the news wasn't all bad: He earned more than $10.3 million and played in his first international team match, the 2003 Presidents Cup as one of Nicklaus' captain's picks ("Attaboy, Jack!" he famously told Nicklaus when the Golden Bear phoned with the news). He followed that up by qualifying for the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team, the oldest ever to do so.

All he lacked was a big victory, which he took care of at the Stadium Course in March. Typically, it wasn't easy. Horrible weather forced a marathon Monday finish. Conditions couldn't have been much worse for Funk's game—a soaked course playing much longer than its 7,093 yards, raked by cold and gusty winds. But after 27 mostly brilliant holes Funk found himself with a three-shot lead. He promptly three-putted the 14th, 15th and 17th holes. His lead reduced to one, he split the 18th fairway with a perfect drive, but pulled his 6-iron approach badly. He turned to Long and asked if it had gone in the pond left of the green.

"We didn't know [it was in the sand] until we got there," says Long. "Once I saw it was OK, I said to him, 'Well, it's not as bad as Adam Scott's shot [into the water in 2004.]"

Relieved and reprieved, Funk put an end to the nonsense with a brilliant bunker shot and a gutsy five-foot putt. "There was a lot of joy from the membership to see Freddie pull off that win," says Andrade. "He's worked hard his whole career. If you tried to predict 15 or 20 years ago the guys who would still be out here right now, Fred Funk wouldn't have been on the list. To be able to do what he's accomplished is pretty damn amazing."

A few weeks after his win, Funk phoned another short-hitting grinder, Chris DiMarco, to congratulate him on nearly outdueling Tiger Woods at the Masters. DiMarco returned the compliment, telling Funk, "You inspired me, Fred. You didn't give up.' "

"That was pretty cool to hear," says Fred. "Now whether he meant it or not is another question."

Come on, Fred. Of course DiMarco meant it. And so does Golf World. Doesn't he look great on the cover?