It’s kind of ironic that a player known for being short and straight off the tee has taken such a long and divergent path to a fruitful professional golf career. But here Fred Funk is. This week, at Del Paso Country Club, he’s taking aim at a second U.S. Senior Open title.
Funk, 59, who now resides in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, an area well-known for producing elite college basketball players. Professional golfers? Not so much. But Funk lived and breathed the game from an early age.
"I had a great environment to grow up in. I worked at the University of Maryland Golf Course, working the range and carts. I did everything there,” he said. “As a kid, that's just where I hung out. All my buddies were golfers. We all worked the range. It was open from 8 in the morning until 10 at night. Then we were allowed to keep the lights on until midnight and we would hit golf balls, have putting contests, anything. We were just a bunch of golf rats."
Funk graduated from Maryland in 1980, struggled on the mini-tour circuit, then returned to his alma mater when the previous golf coach was promoted and offered Funk the job.
Coaching allowed Funk to hone his game. He won a pair of Maryland Opens and had some success competing as a PGA club professional, winning the 1984 FootJoy National Assistants Championship. After coming up short multiple times in PGA Tour Qualifying School, he finally earned his Tour card in 1988, kept it for 1989 and began to thrive in 1990, posting three top-10 finishes.
Driving accuracy has always been Funk’s calling card. His driving distance was generally less than 250 yards, but he led the Tour in accuracy off the tee in 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2003.
"I was always one of the shorter hitters, but I was also one of the more accurate. When I was playing well, I would give myself decent opportunities,” Funk said. “Obviously, I wasn't going to overpower anything. I was dependent on my wedges on the par 5s and getting up and down."
Funk has never let his lack of power deter him, and he seemed to get better with age. Six of his eight PGA Tour victories came after his 40th birthday. His signature win came in the 2005 Players Championship at the age of 49, making him the tournament’s oldest winner.
A two-time top-10 finisher in the U.S. Open, Funk admired Jordan Spieth’s victorious performance last week at Chambers Bay. While Spieth hits it farther than Funk ever did, he relied on accuracy and a sound short game to fend off big hitters such as runner-up Dustin Johnson.
"I think he hits it longer than people give him credit for, he just doesn't have that extra 30 yards in the air like a Dustin Johnson has,” said Funk. “What he has is the overall game. Every facet of his game is really good. If his long game is a little off, his short game seems to pick up for him. He's a really great scrambler, great head on his shoulders. His ultimate strength is his head, just the way he handles himself."
While accuracy off the tee is always important in a major championship, Funk’s dead-aim driving ability should set up especially well this week at Del Paso, which features penal rough from tee to green.
"Anyone who is going to play well this week will have to drive it in the fairway here,” Funk said. “The rough is thick. It's not that it's that tall, it's just very gluey. The club just doesn't go through it. Even around the greens, it's really tough."
Funk’s late rise to PGA Tour success has carried over to senior golf. He has won nine times on the Champions Tour and has saved some of his best golf for the U.S. Senior Open. Funk cruised to a six-stroke victory in 2009 at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., and posted runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2013.
Funk will once again look to take the short and narrow path to add another accolade to what has already been an excellent career. His recent Senior Open history, as well as the fit of his game to this course, makes him a name to watch this week. It’s a formula that’s served him well since his days as a range rat in Maryland.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it was a great ride,” he said. “I wouldn't take anything back. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself that I've had the career I've had."
Joey Flyntz is an associate editor and writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.