A Healthy Funk Will Be Tough To Beat At Sahalee 

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In last year's Senior Open, Fred Funk went on a run during the fourth round that ultimately led to his victory. (John Mummert/USGA)

By Craig Smith

Biloxi, Miss. - Fred Funk has been playing a waiting game with the sport he loves since he first won a spot on the PGA Tour in 1989 at the age of 33. He waited 16 years to break through at The Players Championship, becoming that event’s oldest winner at nearly 49 years old in 2005. It was undoubtedly the biggest of his eight wins on Tour.

Now Funk is in his mid-50s, but playing full-time on the Champions Tour can wait at least another year.

In other words, Funk is enjoying his last year of fully exempt status on the PGA Tour, and he earned a chance to tee it up at the 2010 U.S. Open with his record-setting victory at last year’s U.S. Senior Open at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind.

 “If I can get my game at a real high level and get healthy again, I would like to give the regular Tour one more run,” Funk said after making a run at the Champions Tour Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic title before finishing in a tie for fourth place in early May. He putted well and finished strong, but was most pleased that he had walked without a limp for three days on his reconstructed right knee.

“It’s been weird,” said Funk. “Ever since I turned 50, I’ve had major issues with my knee.”

His right knee got so bad during 2008 and 2009 that he had it drained 18 times and developed a staph infection that left him unsure whether he was even going to play in last year’s U.S. Senior Open. But when he got to Crooked Stick, he was more relaxed than ever.

“I met a family that I stayed with right off the 18th green. It was so relaxing that it was almost spiritual,” said Funk. “It allowed my game to take off, and my putter was smoking hot. It was an incredible week because of the way I pretty much dominated.”

Funk posted all four rounds in the 60s and set a Senior Open scoring record of 20 under par. He closed with a 65, 10 shots better than his final-round effort in 2008 when he fell off the pace and finished second to Eduardo Romero at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 Funk had waited 12 months for a second chance to be in contention at a Senior Open and this time he didn’t let it get away. He won going away by five strokes after finishing as runner-up at the British Senior Open the week before.

Looking back, it’s a wonder Funk was able to compete at all. Less than four months later, in November, he would undergo knee replacement surgery after the pain became so unbearable that it halted his career.

Now, he’s working hard and patiently waiting for his game to return to top form in time for the meat of his 2010 schedule. If history is any indication, he’ll wait, and wait some more.

“I’m starting to hit more quality shots,” said Funk. “I haven’t been competitive for a while, since the end of last year when my knee just gave out.”

Funk’s fantastic golf career grew out of humble beginnings. He was the University of Maryland golf coach for six years through 1988, so even a win at The Players Championship or the U.S. Senior Open hasn’t changed him. In fact, Funk readily admitted he is best known these days for paying off a dare by wearing a skirt in a Skins Challenge match after Annika Sorenstam outdrove him. But, the likeable Funk just laughed it off.

“If you had told me I would have had this career on the PGA Tour after coming out in my 30s, I would have said, ‘Yeah, sure. You’re smoking something.’ It’s been a great ride and I’ve really enjoyed it. But I still feel like I can be competitive and that’s what I’m working toward.”

For seven years, Funk won the PGA Tour’s Driving Accuracy Award, and he still splits the fairways with such regularity you get the feeling he could drive it down an office hallway without touching either wall. At last year’s Senior Open, for example, he hit 47 of 56 fairways.

His game is perfectly suited to this year’s U.S. Senior Open venue, Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash., a tree-lined parkland course.

“I love the golf course,” said Funk. “It’s perfect for my game when I’m playing well. It’s a position golf course. It’s not so much an overpowering golf course. I played the PGA and the WGC (World Golf Championship) event there. I finished second behind Craig Parry, I think. So hopefully, I’ll have my driving game, my iron game and my putting that week.”

If his right knee is fully healed by June, Funk will not only be the defending champion but a favorite in the field, along with Champions Tour newcomer and hometown favorite Fred Couples.

Craig Smith is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship sites.

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