Golfer Fred Funk’s toughest shot may be returning to the U.S. Open
Fred Funk doesn’t like wearing makeup. His skin already has a deep, leathery tan after decades on the golf course, and makeup turns him orange, like a politician before a debate.
He fidgets in the makeup artist’s chair, and while she carefully brushes and dabs his face, he repeatedly smudges her work with his fingers.
“It keeps getting in my eyes,” he says.
“That wouldn’t happen if you’d stop rubbing your face,” she chides.
What he’d rather be doing — what he should be doing — is practicing, since his game has slipped this year. Instead, he graciously accepts another blast of hairspray and stifles a yawn.
It’s 6 a.m. on a warm, muggy Tuesday in mid-May, and Funk is in a Jacksonville, Fla., television studio preparing for 23 consecutive radio and television interviews that were lined up by his sponsor. In two days, the Players Championship , the so-called fifth major on the PGA Tour, is to begin. It’s one of Funk’s favorite tournaments of the year. Not just because he won it six short years ago, but also because it’s in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he lives now. And he knows the interviewers will want to talk about it.
But the two public relations people sent by the company to help Funk this morning are hoping that the interviews will steer away from the tournament and focus on his knee — specifically, the model of the knee replacement that he had surgically installed a year and a half ago. The model of knee he’s paid to endorse. Over the years, professional golfers have hawked all sorts of products — from motor oil, to cars, to watches — but Funk might be the first professional athlete to be sponsored by a prosthetic manufacturer.
After almost 25 years on the pro golf tour, he’s comfortable in front of a microphone, but pitching a product is far different from speaking at a post-round news conference. He has the Stryker Triathlon Knee System, but he keeps calling it the Stryker Titanium Knee, which makes the PR people, both young enough to be his children, cringe while watching a live feed from the studio’s green room.
“It’s made of cobalt chrome,” one of them says.
“Titanium sounds too much like triathlon,” the other says.
Funk also can’t get the Web site right. He keeps plugging stryker.com, which is the main company Web site, but the PR people want him to mention aboutstryker.com, which has detailed information about his knee replacement.
The first few stations are regional broadcasts, so it’s not as big a deal if he’s not entirely on message. But then comes a live appearance on the Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive,” a national show. The hosts asks Funk to reflect on his career.
“I still pinch myself that I had the career that I had,” says Funk, 55. He recounts how he played and then coached at the University of Maryland before making it on tour, always wondering “if I was good enough to play.”
“My career progressed slowly,” he continues. “Real slow at a time. The irony of it was I had the best part of my career between when I was 45 and 49 years old. That’s when most people are in their twilight, waiting to get to the Champions Tour. And that’s when I made most of my hay.”
The hosts play off this line, setting Funk up for the pitch: “Now you’re able to hit balls and play well and have some fun,” the host says. “And Stryker Ortho is a big part of this. Can you tell us what you’re doing here, and how you’ve been able to ‘make hay,’ as you mentioned?”
The PR people watch intently as Funk talks about the travails of the knee, how he had torn cartilage, then had an operation that left him “bone on bone,” as he says. He wrestled with the pain for two years.
“Finally, I had it replaced in November ’09 with the Stryker Titanium Knee,” he says. “It was the best decision I ever made. It gave me my competitiveness back. It gave me the ability to have a normal life, almost, again. I can go out there and compete at the highest level. My knee is not really a factor. The joint itself is fantastic.”
Great pitch, except he said “titanium” again. The PR person groans, and then her phone starts to buzz. Corporate headquarters is not happy.
As much as Funk is asked about the knee — the news is ostensibly National Arthritis Awareness Month — everyone is really focused on the Players Championship, which boasts “the best field in golf.” But this year, for the first time in years, Funk is not eligible to play.
The truth is that although the knee has allowed him to return to competitive golf, he has not returned to the form that helped him win eight times on the PGA, amassing about $21 million in earnings. If his knee feels strong, which it has of late, he thinks he’s as good as he was when he was 30. What he really wants is to be in contention. To be himself again.
The question he now faces is whether that’s possible. Can he be the Fred Funk capable of beating Tiger Woods and the best golfers in the world on the regular PGA Tour? Or has the undertow of age and injury transformed him into someone who, even a few years ago, he would not have recognized, whose game is still sharp, yet undoubtedly diminished.
Funk is one of the few players who competes both on the regular PGA and on the Champions Tour (formerly the Senior PGA Tour), where most tournaments are three rounds, not four, carts are generally allowed and a few players at least are out for a sense of nostalgia as much as competition.
Funk is not one of these. He prefers four days of competition. As bad as his knee sometimes feels, he never uses a cart. And he has absolutely no interest in nostalgia. “I don’t want to go out there and show up,” he says. “I hate losing. Everybody hates losing. But I hate losing.”
This morning, however, no one is asking him about life on the senior tour. They’re too focused on the Players. They all remember when he won it with a dramatic putt on the final hole. But they don’t remember — or don’t understand — that he is not eligible to play this year.
The host from Michigan Talk Radio wishes him luck.
“I’m home for the tournament,” Funk says. “But I’m not playing. It’s kind of tough.”
KTOE, Minnesota: “I believe you’re part of the field this week.”
“Unfortunately, I’m not.”
Comcast SportsNet: “Looks like this will be your seventh event on the PGA.”
Nope, he says. “I just get to spectate.”
WJBK, Detroit: “Good luck this week in the tournament.”
The interviews last five hours, and he’s tired and hungry. The PR people offer to take him to lunch, but before he leaves, Funk detours into the bathroom.
“I’ve got to wipe all this makeup off my face.”
The putt was from five feet out, no break. Funk’s caddie thought about reminding him that if he missed, he could be forced into a playoff. Or he could lose what would be the greatest victory of his career. But Mark Long thought better of it and stuck with the facts: “It couldn’t be more straight.”
After the ball dived into the cup, Funk pumped his fist and spiked his hat. At 48, he was the oldest to ever win the Players Championship. His prize was $1.4 million and an exemption that would allow him to play any tournament on the PGA Tour for five years.
“What am I going to do with that?” he joked to an interviewer at the time.
He’d be 53 by the time the exemption ran out. Surely by then, others thought, he’d have given up the regular PGA for the more comfortable confines of the Champions Tour, with its lesser-known tournaments and smaller purses. But no, he had big plans for that exemption. He was on the top of his game. And it had taken him a long time to get here.
When Funk was growing up in Prince George’s County, golf was a hobby, not a destiny. And it probably wouldn’t even have been that had he not grown up right next to the University of Maryland golf course in College Park, where juniors could play for $2 before 8 a.m.
He was no junior phenom with access to country clubs. His stepfather worked at the Department of Transportation. His mother sewed custom draperies. Starting at 12, Fred worked, too. First at the Maryland golf course, helping with the carts and the range. Then, in high school and college, also at Maryland, driving a truck as an overnight route manager for the Washington Star.
“You worked your paper route, mowed the lawn, then played golf all day,” he says. But even with the course as his back yard, boxing was just as important a sport. Starting at age 8, he fought in the same youth league as Sugar Ray Leonard, who was one weight class below him. Funk was tough and tenacious, but he liked the training more than he liked getting punched, and at 16, he gave up boxing to focus on golf.
He couldn’t hit the ball very far, but he could make up shots on the green by becoming a great chipper and putter. He hit so many chips he put a dent in the face of his wedge, and on the green he inflicted a masochistic drill on himself, remembers Ronnie Scales, the former pro at the Maryland course. Funk would have to make 50 putts in a row from five feet —Isomewhere between a layup and a free throw, in basketball terms. To add pressure, Funk decided that if he missed a putt, he’d have to start over from one again. Some days he wouldn’t leave until he’d made three sets of 50. It would take so long, he’d wear footprints into the green.
He wasn’t good enough for the tour after college, so he took a job for $18,000 a year coaching at Maryland. It was several years before he finally made it on tour at age 32, a late-blooming rookie at an age when others were at their peak.
But after lackluster performances, he lost his tour eligibility the first year, and the kid from Prince George’s County started to wonder if he really belonged. He made it back the next year but had only mediocre results, and by 34, his career was over, or so he thought. Yes, he had made it, but he hadn’t accomplished anything. Maybe he was just one of those guys who could claim to have played alongside the greats, who saw how the pros got treated — locker room attendants who cleaned your spikes, sponsors who gave you clubs and balls and even cars — and then ended up as a club pro or college coach. He started sending out rsums to area clubs. He started thinking about becoming a cop, maybe a patrol officer with the Maryland State Police.
And then he won a big one. On the first day of the 1992 Shell Houston Open, he shot a 62. His career was over; what did he have to lose? The streak continued all week, and suddenly he knew he wasn’t going to be pulling speeders over on Interstate 95 for a living.
Still, his career didn’t really take off until he was in his early 40s. When he was 42, he won $1.1 million. He won $1.6 million the next year. At 46, he broke the $2 million mark. By their mid-40s, most golfers are eyeing retirement or the senior tour. Funk was just hitting his stride.
Then he turned 50, and his knee started to ache. It woke him up at night and prevented him from digging his feet into the sand on bunker shots. Every time he hit off an uphill lie, Long, his caddie, would turn away. He didn’t want to see Funk wincing in pain.
Finally, in 2008, Funk had surgery to repair torn cartilage, and the doctor told him he had to take five weeks off from golf. Four days after the surgery, he called Long. “You’re not going to believe what I did.”
He was out on his boat, which got stuck in the mud. So he hopped out to push and got his knee wet. A no-no, given that the incision hadn’t fully healed and was still prone to infection. This essentially meant he’d lose a week of rehabilitation and would push his return to the tour back even further.
A few days later, Long’s phone rang again.
“I think I’m going to play Memphis,” Funk said.
Which would be exactly three weeks after his surgery. Instead of postponing, he was coming back sooner.
Long, who had played for Funk at Maryland and has caddied for him for years, told Funk that he was crazy and would have to find a different caddie. “There was no way I was going to go there, because I knew it was going to be a disaster, and I didn’t want to watch it,” Long says.
After two rounds, Funk was eight over par, and badly missed the cut.
Long’s phone rang again. “I shouldn’t have done that,” Funk said.
The surgery was only a temporary fix. Every week his knee would swell up like a cantaloupe. And every week Funk had it drained of fluid. Doctors warned him he was risking serious infection with every drainage.
At the end of the year, while Funk was at a tournament in California, after his knee had been drained for the 18th time, Long’s phone rang at 3 a.m.
“I don’t think I can make it,” Funk said, his voice a whisper.
Long had to pick up a key to Funk’s room at the front desk, because Funk couldn’t move. “If he was a horse, you would have shot him right there,” Long says.
Funk had a dangerous staph infection that left him tethered to an IV for six weeks. At one point Funk worried the doctors were going to amputate his leg. He had no other option but to have a knee replacement. Other guys on tour have had similar surgeries. Peter Jacobsen had a knee and hip replaced. Tom Watson nearly won the British Open with a new hip. Last year, Mark McNulty had his knee replaced and took off seven months before returning to competition. “I wanted to do it right,” he says.
There was no way Funk was taking that much time off. Thirteen weeks after his knee replacement surgery, he was back on tour. His eligibility from the Players was running out.
For years in the 1970s, Fred Raphael, a New York television producer, had been trying to sell sponsors and the networks on televising a senior golf event. The Legends of Golf, it would be called. But no one was interested.
In his memoir, Raphael, who died in 2001, wrote that the networks kept rejecting him, saying, “Who would want to watch a bunch of old men play golf?”
But in 1978, NBC Sports took a risk and broadcast the tournament, which Sam Snead and his partner won after Snead birdied the last three holes in a thrilling finish. The next year, the tournament went into a sudden-death playoff that lasted six holes, well into prime time on the East Coast, where viewers hoping to catch the evening news instead saw that the old guys could still play.
After two dramatic finishes and ratings that surprised the critics, who never thought people would tune in to watch a bunch of has-beens, the Senior Tour was born. But getting the big names to play wasn’t always easy. Arnold Palmer turned 50 in 1979 and was eligible, but he wasn’t about to give up the PGA to play exclusively on the senior tour. Nor were the other greats, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Jack Nicklaus.
“There was more money, more prestige on the regular PGA,” recalls Bob Goalby, the winner of the 1968 Masters and an early architect of the Senior Tour. “It was hard for them to give up a way of life that they had known for 30 years.”
Eventually, though, “they drifted over,” he says.
The truth was, the senior tour could be heaven for guys older than 50. “There was still money to win; you didn’t have to play as many days. It was a little softer, and they could win again. And that’s what it was about: winning. But it would take them a year or so to make the transition,” Goalby says.
Goalby, now 82, understands Funk’s hesitancy to turn himself over completely to the Champions Tour.
“It’s hard to leave,” he says. “You want to go one more year. You don’t want to quit. But you’re just not as good as those kids.”
Funk thinks he can still compete against the kids on tour: “When I’m playing well, I’d put my game up against any of these young guys. Yeah, they hit it longer. But I know how to play golf. I know how to play. It’s what I do.”
“Golf doesn’t know age as long as you’re healthy enough,” he adds.
He plans to play until he’s 65 or 70, if everything goes according to plan. So far this year, he has been as healthy as he’s been in a long time, and he’s hitting the ball well. But on the PGA Tour, where the bottom half of the field is cut from the competition after the first two days, he’s made just one cut in six tries.
“The scoring is not anywhere near it should be,” he says. “I’m disappointed in that, because I’m healthy enough to compete. But the entire game just wasn’t coming together.
“Now it’s starting to, I think.”
Which gives him hope that he’ll do better in the next tournament.
The first week of May, like almost every week of the season, Funk and his family — his secondwife, Sharon, and their two children, 15 and 11 — pack up the car and drive to another tournament. The travel is a grind, but the family doesn’t want to let golf get in the way of spending time together, so Sharon home-schools the kids — though home is often on the road.
This week they’re in Birmingham for the Regions Tradition. It’s a major on the Champions Tour, and yet outside of the local press and the golf media, there isn’t much coverage, and the tournament is broadcast on the Golf Channel, not the networks.
Funk is the defending champion, but there is another tournament further down the calendar that he has his eye on as well: the U.S. Open. “That’s the biggest tournament there is for me,” he says.
This year, it’s being played at Congressional Country Club, in Bethesda, which has a special resonance. “That’s home,” he says. But having lost his exemptions, he’ll have to qualify in a grueling 36-hole match alongside amateurs, club pros, and members of the Nationwide Tour, golf’s minor leagues, trying to break into the big time just as he was three decades ago. Out of 112 spots, only 10 will make it.
In Birmingham, he’s adamant that the Regions means more to him than a mere qualifier. It is, along with the Senior PGA Championship and the Senior U.S. Open, one of the “major” tournaments on the Champions Tour. With its Southern charm and formalities — the caddies must wear white jumpsuits — the Regions is considered to be the senior tour’s equivalent of the Masters.
But would he rather be eligible for the Open or win the Regions?
This time, he pauses. “That’s a qood question,” he says.
At one point on the Saturday of the Open in 2004, he was leading and ultimately finished sixth. Last year, he was just seven shots behind the leader going into the weekend before he fell apart. This may be one of his last chances for a serious run.
First, he’s got to prove he can play well enough to handle Congressional, which, though a favorite, is not particularly suited to Funk’s game. It’s ridiculously long, and Funk is a notoriously short hitter. The first day at the Regions is not encouraging. He shoots a 75 after putting poorly. On the second day, he tosses his putter for a new, largely untested one, like a soldier going into battle with a rifle he’s never fired. He doesn’t do much better. “That was a mistake,” he says afterward.
On both of the final two days, though, he shoots three under par and finishes tied for a respectable 18th. It boosts his confidence and proves he’s capable of bouncing back. But he still has work to do, and after each round heads almost immediately to the practice range.
There, after his first, and worst round, three men gather to watch. They are 65, 68 and 75, and yet they lean over the rail of the bleachers like kids at the ballpark.
“Freddy’s hitting his driver now,” one of them says. “Line drive.”
“He’ll do well here,” says Eugene Looney, 68.
“He still has the desire,” Chris Potter, the 65-year-old, says. “It takes a lot to play a round and then go out and practice.”
They quietly watch Funk hit shot after shot, aiming at make-believe targets in the distance. Potter is reminded of a round he played last fall himself. He shot a 93. “Putted terribly.” He went home, lay down for a rest but was so upset with himself, “I got out of that bed and went out and putted for two hours. I shot 76 the next day.”
“Practice,” Looney says.
“The thing about being 75 is you can’t hit but 30 or 40 balls,” Jim Chancellor says. “You can’t practice as much before the lower back goes.”
He takes a practice swing with an invisible club, mimicking Funk and the few other pros left on the range. The sun is beginning to fade behind the Alabama pines.
“If you could just retain the mental picture of what they’re doing,” he says.
More quiet. Then: “Have you seen all the pretty girls out here?”
The parking lot at the golf course during the week of the Players Championship reveals a pecking order of the PGA’s status. Top players such as Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have reserved spots up close to the clubhouse alongside the spot for Tim Clark, the defending champion. This year, though, there is no parking spot for Funk.
But this is his home course, and he’s won the thing before, so he doesn’t mind parking illegally in Clark’s spot, which during tournament week has commandeered a space for the handicapped.
The course, known as TPC Sawgrass, is the closest thing golf has to a modern stadium. It’s famous for the island green at the par-3 17th, the sliver of fairway running along the water at 18 and the sloping hills designed for seating that make the closing holes feel like a Roman amphitheater. The clubhouse is over the top as well, a $36 million, 77,000-square-foot showpiece that could pass either for the gaudiest of 10-car-garage Florida McMansions or an opulent Mediterranean hotel. But Funk isn’t here to play on the island green or to sip cocktails on clubhouse terrace. He’s here for the pain.
Funk goes down to the basement to find Marc Wahl, a physical therapist who takes no pity. Wahl is working out a knot in Steve Stricker’s back by pressing his thumb deep along the spine of one of the top players in the world. But this is no ordinary massage. Wahl’s thumb is almost two knuckles deep into his flesh. At Elizabeth Arden, he could be arrested for aggravated assault, but here in the club’s cinderblock basement, he’s a sought-after hero.
“Feels much better,” Stricker says, taking an practice swing with an invisible club. “Much better.”
Funk is next.
“Overall, where are you with this thing?” Wahl asks him.
By “thing” Funk knows he’s talking about his knee.
“Same,” he says.
“Same as where we started?” Wahl is incredulous. “We’ve been working on that now aggressively, so we should see some improvement.”
“So the only success we had was that day when I beat the living crap out of you?”
That’s the day, several weeks ago, Wahl pushed Funk to such pain that they came up with a code phrase: blueberry pancakes. Whenever the pain got too intense, Funk would yelp, “Blueberry pancakes!” and Wahl would stop.
“I fully expected you to stay 60 yards away from me at all times, saying, ‘This is a letter from my attorney.’ ”
Wahl is making a joke, but as Funk strips to his shorts and lies down on the table, he is not laughing. He knows what’s coming. Wahl takes Funk’s lumpy, scarred knee into his hands and plunges his thumbs deep in, trying to manipulate the knee. It should give some, but it’s stuck like a clogged piston.
“There’s no spring,” Wahl says. “There’s no play.”
The pain reduces Funk to clinched agony. “What’s. The. Code. Word. Now?”
“I got one,” Wahl says. “Flyover.”
Wahl goes two knuckles deep into Funk’s knee and starts to press. Funk writhes as if he’s being branded with an iron. Long before his knee replacement, he had problems with his ever-tight IT band, the thick tissue running down the outside of the leg. And with the surgeries, he also has a lot of scar tissue. Wahl moves his hands, and Funk starts to convulse. His veins pop.
“Oh, ahh, gah, gaaaaaah. F-f-f-f-f-FLYOVER!”
“If you pass out, it’s just going to make this easier,” Wahl says.
It goes on like this for 30 minutes. Sometimes, Funk buries his face in a towel. Other times, he screams. Once he leaps forward and pulls Wahl’s hands off him, and for a split second, it seems as though he might throw a punch.
“I can’t believe people pay for this,” Wahl says.
“I haven’t paid you yet.”
Finally Wahl shows mercy. “I think that’s enough. Remember: ice.”
Funk’s eyes are bloodshot and watery. But the knee feels much better. Not as it did when he was 30, but loose and good enough to play on, which is about all he can ask for these days.
But what if the knee isn’t the whole problem? The knee can’t fully explain why at the Senior PGA the week after the Players, he finishes 14 strokes behind the leader, or why the week after that he finishes tied for 72nd at the next Champions Tour Event.
If he was getting crushed by guys older than 50, how could he possibly compete at the Open? For the first time since he thought about becoming a cop, he started to consider quitting golf, if only temporarily. But breaks for 55-year-olds are not temporary; they’re preludes to retirement. The question he now faced was not if he could compete against the best in the game, but whether he could still compete at all.
The U.S. Open sectional qualifier on June 6 at Woodmont Country Club would tell him what he needed to know.
From the first hole on he hits the ball beautifully. Almost every drive this day is right down the middle, and almost every approach flirts with the cup. For 36 holes — and the 10 hours it takes to complete them — his play is inspired, and he raises his putter to the sky, pumping his fist. And then, after its clear that he’s qualified for the Open, he breaks down in front of reporters, speechless.
But that was an expectation he could live with.
He was going to be there with club in hand on the first tee, staring down that long fairway again, aiming at a spot in the distance that only he could see.
Christian Davenport is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.