Back when he was the golf coach at the University of Maryland in the 1980s, it wasn't enough for Fred Funk simply to go to the practice range with his driver late in the day. Instead, he would often jump in a cart, armed with several buckets of balls, and head out to the golf course, looking for an empty tee box pointed toward the tightest fairway he could find.
From there, Funk would hit shot after shot, first down the left side, then toward the right and eventually down the middle. Rarely did his drives ever find the rough on either side. The only problem he ever had came at the 15th hole one evening, when a young boy dashed out of the woods down the left side, picked up a ball and ran back into the trees.
"Then the kid did it again," recalled Don Slebodnik, who played for Funk at Maryland. "So the third time, Fred hit it down the right side so the kid would have to run farther to get the ball. As soon as Fred hit it, he started running down the fairway and tried to catch the kid. Fred kept running and he finally caught him, but they were both so out of breath neither one of them could even talk. Knowing Fred, he probably gave the kid the balls anyway."
Anyone who knew Funk back then also had an inkling that one day all that practice would eventually pay off. So what if he never hit the ball a very long way? He didn't have to, then or now, because all those twilight evenings of aiming at tight College Park fairways would eventually make him the most accurate driver of the ball on the PGA Tour.
Funk, who will turn 49 next week and is in his 17th season on the PGA Tour, leads current tour statistics by hitting fairways 76 percent of the time. His average driving distance -- 268.2 yards -- ranks him 181st in length off the tee, 51 yards behind the tour's driving distance leader, Scott Hend. But Funk, No. 26 in the world rankings, can still laugh about that yawning power disparity all the way to the bank. He's sixth on the PGA Tour money list, with $2.27 million, the fourth straight season he'll exceed $2 million in earnings, and is on his way to his best financial season ever.
He's also making all that money despite being ranked 155th on tour in putting, usually one of his great strengths. Despite his deficiencies, he's a gritty player -- Jack Nicklaus calls him a "bulldog" -- who combines accuracy off the tee and solid iron play with simply knowing how to get the ball in the hole, skills he began honing more than 20 years ago when he coached the Maryland golf team from 1982 to '88.
"It was a great time for me at Maryland," Funk said recently. "The only thing I didn't like was the recruiting. I couldn't ever land a blue-chip guy. We were too far north, the weather wasn't always good and we did not have a real good practice area. We just didn't have the appeal to a kid that Wake Forest or Duke could offer to them, but we did have a good time, I can tell you that."
Funk always seems to have a good time on the golf course these days. When his game is on and putts are falling, his megawatt smile and celebratory gyrations have also made him one of the tour's more colorful and endearingly popular players. Fans seem to relate to a 5-foot-8 bantamweight trying to slug it out with all those heavy hitters.
"I'm really so proud of him," said Woody Fitzhugh, a teaching pro who owns a Northern Virginia driving range and also was a dominant player in the Middle Atlantic PGA section when Funk was still playing locally and coaching in College Park.
"I call Fred my 'earthly hero.' What this guy has done is just amazing. Most of the guys he's playing against now are half his age and hit it 50 yards by him every time. But he knows his strengths and his weaknesses, and he knows his limitations. He makes up for his shortcomings by doing everything else better than anyone else. Back then, he was always friendly, a great guy, and he's never changed -- not one bit -- and I love that about him."
From Cut to Coach
There is much to love about Funk's story, the PGA Tour version of the recent up-from-nowhere Seabiscuit and "Gentleman Jim" Corbett genre. Funk grew up in College Park, was a fine amateur boxer in his teenage years and once was cut from his college golf team at Maryland, where he also flunked out before buckling down in community college and getting back to eventually play for and then coach the Terrapins, and also get a degree in law enforcement.
He began in golf as a caddie for his stepfather, and as a college student, he also helped pay his way through school as a weekend circulation distributor for the Washington Star, waking up at 1 a.m. Sunday morning when many of his classmates were just leaving their campus fraternity parties, to drive a delivery truck loaded with papers. He was done by 10 a.m., still leaving plenty of time for a round of golf and a little nap.
As a coach initially hired for $18,500 a year, he also gave lessons, worked in the pro shop at the Maryland course and even drove the van to tournaments up and down the East Coast, earning a reputation as a tailgating speed demon on the open road.
"Yeah," he said, "I guess I did tailgate, but only when I got mad at the slow guy in front of me."
There also were times when Funk would occasionally show up for a college tournament, give his team a quick pep talk then head for the range to work on his own game while his players were out on the course. But his former players also remember a coach who helped them with course management, offered swing tips -- but only if asked -- and turned up at every par 3 to advise players on club selection.
"The biggest thing I got out of it was that he would play with us in practice," recalled Slebodnik, now a teaching pro himself. "Let's face it, there ain't much a coach can do for you during a match. But he was an extremely competitive guy, and in practice he'd try to beat us and we'd try to beat him. If you were struggling, he'd help you with your swing. He definitely helped me become a better player, and I think most of the guys would tell you the same thing."
At the same time, Funk was always trying to make himself a better player. He first began to attract some notice in 1984, when he won the National Assistant Championship. That earned him a place in the field of the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, and he tied for 23rd that year, with Open appearances in 1986 and '87, as well.
"Those years playing in the [MAPGA] section also were valuable for me," Funk said. "I learned how to win and the extra money definitely supplemented my income at Maryland. My last year as coach, I think I made $22,000 and I was making about the same amount playing. But I also learned how to shoot low numbers back then. I was a decent player in college, but after that, I got used to shooting 63, 64. I got a confidence level shooting low numbers, and that was a real learning curve for me."
After trying and failing three times, Funk earned his PGA Tour card in 1989 at age 32, but life in golf's big leagues was initially a struggle. He also was going through a difficult divorce and had some injury problems. He finished 157th on the money list his first full season, and had to get through Q School to keep his card for 1990. At one point early on, Funk was seriously contemplating giving up the tour to go back to a job as a club professional.
In May 1992, after missing the cut in two of his previous three events, Funk was actually distributing his resume to several Washington area clubs when he came to the Woodlands course for the Houston Open. After barely making the cut, Funk shot a 62 in the third round to take a one-shot lead, then fired a final-round 70 for his first victory on the tour. In addition to collecting a healthy winner's check, he met his current wife, Sharon Archer, the daughter of a Texas congressman and a fine golfer in her own right, at a party at the club following the tournament.
Two years later they were married, and Funk now travels the circuit with his family -- including 9-year-old son Taylor and 5-year-old daughter Perri -- in tow. Since that life-altering victory in Houston, Funk has gone on to win six more times, making his first Presidents Cup team in 2003 and his first Ryder Cup team last fall.
The biggest victory of all came this past March, when Funk prevailed in the rain-soaked and delayed Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla., where he now lives. It wasn't easy: He three-putted for bogey at Nos. 14, 15 and 17 and watched his lead dwindle to one shot. On the difficult 18th, Funk nearly put his approach shot into the water on the left side, but a brilliant bunker shot and a pressure-packed five-foot putt earned him the victory and a career-best winner's check of $1.44 million.
Three days after he hoisted the trophy, his best friend and close neighbor suffered an aneurysm and almost died.
"That was just such a shock," Funk said. "You go from such a super high to a super low like that. The good news is he's doing a lot better, but that was a very difficult week."
The Players Championship also earned Funk a five-year exemption, allowing him to play the PGA Tour well into his fifties, but he has been dreaming for years about the shorter courses, minimal rough and no cut of the Champions Tour, for which he'll be eligible beginning next year. He likely will begin playing that circuit full time within the next two years, though he also hopes to play on the regular tour at courses he knows he can handle.
"It's still tough competition, but it's a little more laid-back," he said. "Let's face it, there are fewer and fewer courses on our tour where I can compete."
Funk will be here at Congressional, playing on one of those long, 7,250-yard major championship courses that have been wearing him out for years. He has no problem admitting one of his major regrets in golf has been not winning a PGA tournament in his home town, and his greatest disappointment came at the 1998 Kemper Open, when he held the lead after 54 holes, only to shoot 77 on Sunday, including an 8 after hitting two shots into the water on the fourth hole at TPC at Avenel.
"I wanted '98 so bad," he said, "and losing it really was a big deal for me. It took me awhile to get over that. I let it go early, but I was pleased that at least after the first six holes, I played the last 12 in even par. Yeah, winning this week at Congressional would be sweet, really special, and that's what I'll be trying to do."