Bring in ‘da Funk – golfer Fred Funk

Tom Callahan

‘It’s a hard name to grow up with, but it’s easy to remember’-Fred Funk

Early in the reign of Joe Montana, before the 49ers won any of those Super Bowls, the San Francisco Chronicle decided its new Loch-invar needed a nickname. Readers’ suggestions were solicited. Many poured in. None fit.

The contest was eventually won by a surprisingly clear thinker, especially for San Francisco, who argued that Joe Montana didn’t need a nickname. Joe Montana was a nickname. He needed a real name. The contestant proposed “David W. Gibson.”

So, forthwith, Montana had “David W. Gibson” stenciled atop his locker; and, for all formal purposes, he was David W. Gibson the rest of his career. If anyone were to ask what the”W” stood for, Joe was ready with the answer. But nobody ever did.

This footnote is recalled now because Fred Funk desperately needs a real name. Entries (c/o Golf Digest, Re-name Fred Funk, P.O. Box 395, Trumbull, CT 06611- 0395) are hereby requested.

A golfer can earn $1,121,988 (as Funk did in 1998), play more tournament rounds than anyone else (114), make seven more cuts than either David Duval or Tiger Woods (11 more than Mark O’Meara), silently extend his anonymous status as the ironman of the ’90s, win a fifth time on the PGA Tour (once more than Tom Lehman over the same period), lose a playoff to Steve Elkington on top of that, have a 50-under-par stretch of third, fourth, fifth and first places, be the very symbol of blue-collar gumption and the very soul of the workaday pro, and yet be taken less than seriously by the world at large because he has the name of a cartoon character.

“It’s a hard name to grow up with,” Funk allows, “but it’s easy to remember. Sometimes on tour, I’m ‘Funky’ or ‘the Funkster.’ In Japan this last trip, it was ‘Funk-san.’ They’re getting to know me. ‘Funk-san! Funk-san!’ “

When Fred Funk was a little boy, about the same size as he is now, he delivered the Washington Post in the a.m. and the Washington Star in the p.m. to College Park, Md., home of the University of Maryland Terrapins. Between routes, he toiled at the golf course. As he moved up from a bicycle to a truck in the newspaper game, Fred progressed from cart boy to heavy mower at the course (and, in time, to keeper of the range, star of the team and, eventually, coach of the Terrapins; but that’s getting way ahead of the story).

The point is, he grew up unafraid of work and, well, almost anything else. At age 8, in his first swipe at sports, he was a 59-pound fighter for the Delphi Boys Club. Actually, he “walked around,” as the boxers say, at 65 pounds, but made the weight by sweating himself down in a VW bug covered from hood to wheels with plastic.

“Not being scared, or not being overwhelmed by fear, anyway”-that was the first benefit of the ring. He also learned the vagaries of life. “I lost some they said I won; I won some they said I lost. ” Handiest of all was the practice he gained in seeing better talent all around and not mind-ing it-on the contrary, delighting in it, being inspired by it.

For instance, there was a kid from Palmer Park, precisely Fred’s age, luckily not his weight, named Ray Charles Leonard. (“Incredible hand speed.”) Fred can still see Baby Ray bobbing in place.

Following a strong high school golf career,

Funk entered an exhaustive qualifier for 12 spots at U. of M. and finished 13th. Missing by one became a trend. However, via Prince George’s Community College, he played his way back to Maryland and the No. 1 position.

“I was self-taught,” he says, “didn’t know much about the game, had a lot of bad habits-still do. Always short, always straight. Square setup. I’m on the left rail, the ball’s on the right rail. I’ve just always had this image of the club going down the line as long as possible.”

He was 126th in driving distance last year (267.4 yards), seventh in fairways hit (78.1 percent).

After graduation, Funk tried the mini tours in Florida. As he puts it plainly, “I went belly up.” Fred was working a Manpower job salvaging a burned-out warehouse when the coaching position opened at Maryland. “I had great dreams for the golf team,” he says. But the Terrapins could never keep up with the hares- the Sun Belt schools.

Still, they had marvelous times. In practice, the players wanted to beat the coach, and his game grew. Around the area, he became the scourge of the $400 pro-ams. Club professionals sniffed, as they generally do, that he must have a lot of time to play golf. They didn’t see him alone in the gym at night, after even the janitor went home, running the steps, lifting the weights, swinging into the net.

“We played from the white tees in those tournaments,” Funk says. “Wedges all day. Good training. You weren’t scared of being six or seven under with holes to play.”

Meanwhile, he qualified regularly for U.S. Opens. At Oakland Hills in 1985, he missed the top 16-missed Augusta, that is-by a stroke. (“I didn’t even know that rule existed.”) In the 1987 PGA at Palm Beach Gardens, Fred actually led the tournament after 22 holes: “I saw my name up ahead of Ray Floyd’s and panicked.”

The top-10 players in a qualifying series went straight to the finals of Q school. Funk finished 11th. Never mind. He took the long way and became a 32- year-old rookie on the PGA Tour. He lost his card. He won it back. Then, one Sunday in Flint, Mich., he shot a 65 that moved him far enough up the field to lift him over a wall. Andrew Magee, his playing partner, somehow knew Funk had secured his pass. As they walked off the 18th green, Magee said softly, “Welcome to the tour.”

In 1992, Funk won his first tournament, in Houston. He shot 62 on Saturday and survived the sleepless night. It took him three years to win again, at Pleasant Valley. He almost holed a 252-yard 3-wood on the last green to do it. Later that summer, he won the Buick Challenge. The following year: the B.C. Open.

Funk has done most of his winning on cable. Lehman wouldn’t trade any of his jewels for Funk’s victory last July in the Deposit Guaranty. But, then, Fred wouldn’t trade much, either.

At the Masters last spring, he played a practice round with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The fourth player was Ken Bakst, an amateur. As Nicklaus and Palmer climbed one of the hills, Funk and Bakst lagged back and watched. Simultaneously, they looked over at each other and smiled. Funk is 42 years old and can still smile like an amateur.

He continues to pick the ball off as though it were sitting on a green twill mat. He hasn’t changed very much. His wife, Sharon, daughter of House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, is ramrodding the construction of a grand new home in Florida. “The less you need, the more you get,” Fred says philosophically. He isn’t very grand.

Probably he should play a little less, “but it’s my job,” he says, “and I love my job.” He reasons, “I just know I’m going to play good at some point in the year. I just don’t know when.”

Frederick Funk. Does that help? Is Frederick W. Funk any better? Truthfully, he has no middle name. Buteveryone would know what the “W” stands for. Winner.

COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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