While they may not be as numerous or as boisterous as the legions of dedicated fans that follow every move Tiger, Phil or Big John Daly make, “Funk’s Punks” make their presence known whenever their man is on the leader board.
That’s because Fred Funk is sort of an everyman’s golfer and his fans love him for it. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly long (albeit amazingly straight), has a rather short (5-foot, 8-inch), compact frame, and gladly wears his emotions on the sleeves of his golf shirt. Funk presents a wonderful image as he struts down the fairway, arms hanging by his sides. He gladly interacts with the fans, and seems as though he is hearing applause for the first time in his life.
Who can forget the sight of the 49-year-old slamming his cap down onto the 18th green after sinking a pressurized six-foot putt to win this year’s Players Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass. It was sort of like Funk saying, “There, I told you I could really play this game.”
The guy with the funny last name can play. He became the oldest player to win The Players, beating brutal weather conditions and perhaps the best field in golf to record a 72-hole, 9-under par total. His 2005 earnings through September were $2.6 million, ranking him 10th on the money list. He was a member of this year’s U.S. President’s Cup team. He also won the CVS Charity Classic, an unofficial tournament, with Chris DiMarco, this summer.
Funk’s Punks are also attracted to a lack of social pedigree in their guy. After turning pro in 1981, Funk served as head coach of the University of Maryland golf team from 1982 to 1988. During his pre-PGA Tour years he worked in a newspaper circulation department. (Blue collar enough for you?) He was 33 when he jumped onto the Tour fulltime in 1989. The rest is history.
Funk has made a very nice living for himself ($17.6 million) with remarkably steady play from tee to green and a dogged determination on and around the putting surfaces. He hits around 75 percent of the fairways he aims at and is annually among the leaders in greens in regulation. His putting can be streaky, but when he’s on he can roll them in from anywhere on the carpet.
I caught up with Funk at this year’s Buick Championship in Cromwell, Ct. He was standing near the practice green following the first round of the event, with his wife Sharon, and nine-year-old son Taylor, close to him.
Taylor’s a pretty good player already, said dad proudly. “He shoots between 90 and 95.” Funk and his wife have two other children, Eric and Perri Leigh.
“I have always enjoyed the fan support,” Funk said. “It’s nice to hear and it does get you pumped up.”
He spoke for a while about his win at the Players Championship.
“It’s my defining win. I throw all the other ones (six) in the hat. They’ve meant a lot me, but nothing to the level of The Players Championship. We had 35-mile-an-hour gusts during the tournament and I had to play 32 holes in it. It was a long, tough day on a really hard course. But I think it actually played to my favor. It was blowing so hard that the guys that do hit the ball a long way and hit it extremely high off the tee didn’t have control of the golf ball as much. I was hitting my normal shot and keeping it down. I hit the ball extremely solid that day.”
He told of a meeting with three-time major winner, Nick Price, in the locker room of The Masters following The Players Championship.
“Nick said, `Finally a tournament that somebody won and it meant a lot of hit the fairways and greens instead of how far they’re hitting it.’ That felt pretty good. I didn’t even realize it until he told me that.”
On his length, or lack thereof, Funk said, “I was playing with Tiger at the Buick Open in Flint (Michigan) and he was airmailing me 50 to 60 yards in every shot. Ryan Palmer was flying it 295 to 300 on every shot. It was unbelievable how far they can hit it.”
He continued, “I’ve never been a long hitter. But I’m long enough. I know I’m long enough to score on any kind of course as long as I am hitting the ball solid. But I can’t miss even a little bit, because I can’t afford to give up 20 yards. I’m already giving up 20, 30 or more yards to the long guys.”
Funk, who is in the TaylorMade stable of Tour pros and lives with his family in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., said one his goals is to make the 2006 Ryder Cup team. Once he turns 50 next June, he may try and play both the PGA and Champions tours, a la Jay Hass and Craig Stadler, at least for a year.
At the Buick Championship, Funk was still battling a nagging upper shoulder injury incurred while practicing in early summer.
“I have my aches and pains like everybody else, but this was a bit more than that. I ice it after I play but it really bothered me for a while. But it’s gotten much better.”
So how long does Funk believe he can threaten the flat bellies on the PGA Tour?
“To me, age doesn’t really matter that much as long as you’re mentally focused to play and you’re physically okay. I work out and it’s more of a focus thing for guys at what they consider the old age of 49 or 48, or 47. You look at Hale Irwin still playing great. I think he can still win when he’s healthy out there at age 60. Craig Stadler can still play well. Peter Jacobsen is still playing great and swinging better now than he ever has. These guys are focused to play and they want to play. It’s a mindset.”
And on his selection to the President’s Cup team, “It was a neat feeling. I made it as a captain’s pick the last time and this year I wanted to make it on my own. That was my lone goal coming into this year. Playing in Manassas (Va.) was great because it’s in the D.C. area, so I was the homeboy for the week.”
Funk related an amusing story about his being selected by then captain Jack Nicklaus to the 2003 Presidents’ Cup team.
“I was at a restaurant and got a call from this guy saying that Jack was going to be calling me. I didn’t know if I was going to get picked. Jack said, `Fred you didn’t do what I wanted you to do, you didn’t make it on points (he was 11th).’ I go `Yeah, I know, I didn’t quite play as good as I wanted to.’ He says, `But, I picked you.” I go `Atta’boy, Jack,’ The whole bar could hear me. I started back-pedaling from three, `Sorry, Jack, Mr. Nicklaus.’” True Fred Funk stuff.