Sammamish, Wash. – Pardon the pun, but you could forgive Fred Funk for succumbing to something of a knee-jerk reaction when assessing his chances of defending his U.S. Senior Open title this week at Sahalee Country Club in suburban Seattle.
It's doubtful you’ll find another major championship test as demanding as Sahalee when it comes to driving accuracy and precision. And you won’t find many golfers 50 years and older who are more accurate off the tee than Funk. So, naturally, Funk can’t help but like how this particular examination matches up with his skill set.
Yeah, I think it's a great golf course for me, if I'm playing my game, said Funk, whose game was never better than last year, when he dashed off to a record 20-under-par 268 aggregate annihilation of Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., and registered a six-stroke victory over Joey Sindelar. I’ve got to be playing my ‘A’ game.
Right there is the qualifier cemented in harsh reality. Funk, 54, has yet to find his A game in 2010 after undergoing knee replacement surgery in November. He is without a victory thus far, though there have been a few glimmers in recent outings that bring encouragement. He tied for third at last week’s Senior British Open at Carnoustie, in Scotland, and was runner-up two weeks before that at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y.
The replacement of his right knee was necessary after Funk underwent his second arthroscopic surgery in late 2008 and then developed a staph infection that delayed his ’09 season. After getting his knee replaced Nov. 16, Funk was hitting balls within six weeks. But performing at the level he displayed last year at Crooked Stick has been elusive.
I've not played that good early. I'm starting to play pretty good now, said Funk, who led the PGA Tour in driving accuracy five times and was the straightest driver a year ago at Crooked Stick. It's obviously a big battle with my knee. I've been saying that for three years. It's getting old. I finally had it replaced last year, and trying to come back from that was a little slower than I thought it would be, but I'm getting ahead of it now and the game is starting to show up again, and I'm looking forward to playing.
I've been really eager because the knee has gotten better as the weeks have gone by, and as my knee has gotten better my game has gotten better. I'm starting to play real well. I'm excited about it. I love this golf course. If I can hit the ball the way I normally hit it off the tee with ball control, which is what you need this week, then I expect to have a good week here.
He’s had good weeks at Sahalee in the past, most recently when he tied for second eight years ago at the World Golf Championship event then sponsored by NEC (now the Bridgestone Invitational, at Firestone). He tied for 23rd in the 1998 PGA Championship here, not bad at a course he calls Hilton Head on steroids. He is referring to Harbour Town Golf Links, the short but tight tree-lined layout designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus.
Crooked Stick is a Dye design, so maybe the comparison of Harbour Town and Sahalee is not only apt, but also plays into Funk’s aptitude for precision. It also doesn’t hurt that Funk is one of the few players in this week's field – David Frost, Tom Lehman and Tom Watson are the others – who also competed in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where the greens were at least as firm as Sahalee’s.
Watson said he thinks Sahalee’s greens are more firm than what players encountered at Pebble Beach. Funk wasn’t so sure. But he knows that scoring will be ineffably more difficult than last year’s championship on the rain-softened Indiana layout.
Pebble was harder than this ‑ or firmer than this, I should say, in that terminology, said Funk. But it's still a different animal. Pebble was ridiculous how hard it was this year. It was unbelievable. Here, with the weather they have, they can control what they want. The golf course is difficult enough. I don't think there's that many birdies out there. I think even par wins this tournament. I don't see anybody going under par.
Funk, owner of five Champions Tour and eight PGA Tour titles, can play that game, too. He finished tied for 11th in the 2006 Senior Open at Prairie Dunes at 1-under 279, and in the ’08 edition at The Broadmoor he was second to Eduardo Romero at 2-under 278, a triple bogey at the 13th hole ending his hopes.
I love the golf course like this and I love playing four-round tournaments versus three, said Funk, referring to majors on the Champions Tour being 72-hole competitions versus regular events that are only 54 holes. And I love playing courses that really are going to expose the guys that are playing really well and expose the guys that aren't.
We'll get some separation this week for sure right out of the gate with the guys that are controlling their golf ball than if they're not. The game plan is pretty obvious – you’ve got to keep the ball in the fairway.
That game plan is right in Funk’s wheelhouse, and now he’s getting healthy enough to find that wheelhouse, too.
It’s been fun getting in contention a little bit every now and then recently, he said. But I expect to be in contention a lot more often. And I think the game is coming back where I can do that.
This is as good a place as any for Funk to emerge again. Maybe the best place.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.