Somewhere along the line, Fred Funk became Everygolfer. Maybe it was during the 2002 PGA Championship, when he led for two rounds at the age of 46 and unleashed his Inner Ham — to the galleries’ great joy. Or maybe it was at the Skins Game three years later, when he good-naturedly donned a pink flowered skirt as punishment for being outdriven by Annika Sorenstam.
(Think about it: Other than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” has a guy ever benefited more from wearing a skirt than Funk?)
Strolling golf’s fairways, he says, “All I hear is: ‘Play good for the old guys! Play good for the little guys! Play good for the short hitters!’ It’s neat [that] people can kind of live vicariously through me. I think they feel if I can do it … they have a chance of doing it.”
Spectators, it seems, see themselves in Funk, which isn’t surprising. He is, indeed, an old guy, athletically speaking; he turned 51 last month and holds dual citizenship on the PGA and Champions tours. He’s also a thoroughly ordinary 5-foot-8 and ranks a lowly 182nd on the PGA Tour in driving distance.
In other words, he’s you. He’s me. Except he’s one of the greatest Geezer Golfers — OK, Golfers of a Certain Age — in history. Since his 48th birthday he has won three Tour events — the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, the Players Championship and, earlier this year, the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. Nobody, near as I can tell, has done that since Sam Snead.
Yesterday, Funk shot a three-under 67 at Congressional in the first round of the AT&T; National, leaving him just a stroke behind the leaders. This would be a bigger story if he hadn’t placed fifth at Hartford two weeks ago — and finished ahead of defending champ Geoff Ogilvy in the U.S. Open the week before that. Fact is, Steady Freddie is expected to do these things now, expected to defy the aging process and occasionally crack the Top 10. I mean, somebody has to keep the young bucks humble.
How he does it, especially at this late stage, is anyone’s guess. “Fortunately,” he said, “I think I know how to play the game of golf. It’s not just how far you hit it, thank goodness. It’s managing yourself around the golf course. It’s taking advantage of opportunities. … But you know, there’s an intangible out here that I haven’t figured out. It’s what’s inside [you], but I don’t know what that is that’s inside that allows some guys to go on to be superstars while other guys who have that [same] ability don’t ever get to that level.
“I don’t know what has allowed me to have the best part of my career this late in my career. The thing that surprises me is that I’ve had my best years with all that technology out there [helping the] young guys hit it a long, long way. I can’t take advantage of that because … I’m not a power player” — and can’t generate the necessary clubhead speed.
This might be Tiger Woods’ tournament, but it’s still Fred Funk’s town. And one of these years, local fans have hoped, Funk — pride of Takoma Park and the University of Maryland — would win the Tour event here. The closest he has come, though, was in ‘98, when he led for three rounds before unraveling on Sunday. (Four years ago he tied for second behind Rory Sabattini, but it was a distant second, four strokes back.)
The AT&T;, however, isn’t being played at Avenel. It’s being played at a once and future U.S. Open venue that has been set up just like USGA would do it — if the USGA, that is, ever loosened its collar. The fairways aren’t quite as narrow or the rough quite as long, but it’s not a course that’s going to yield a ton of low scores. That opens the door for the short, straight knockers like Funk and Corey Pavin, who also had a 67 yesterday.
“That’s the mark of a great golf course, I think,” Pavin said. “It’s nice when we get to a course and anybody in the field can win.”
Funk could have gone to the U.S. Senior Open at Whistling Straits this week and acted his age. He undoubtedly would have been one of the favorites. But he chose to return to his roots and try to keep up with the kids, curious to see “how long I can stay competitive.” So far, so good.
Oh, he also got to attend a birthday celebration — along with a handful of other players — for President Bush and watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the White House. No word on what he wore for the occasion, but it probably wasn’t a pink flowered skirt.