Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Fred Funk calls the Booz Allen Classic a major tournament — at least for him.

Majors don’t faze him, so that means there’s only one worry for the local favorite: He might be a little bit too fired up.

“I’ve always wanted to come down 18 and have a chance to win this tournament,” Funk said. “I think if you interviewed any hometown boy on the tour, whatever site it is, they want to play really well wherever they are from.”

The Takoma Park native has proved he can handle major pressure, riding raucous crowd support to top-10 finishes at the 2002 PGA Championship and last weekend’s U.S. Open. His game seems in good shape, and he knows the course well. But his caddie, Mark Long, is a little worried Funk’s high regard for this tournament could backfire.

“There’s more pressure to win here because he wants to win here,” Long said. “It’s never good to want to win in golf.”

The 48-year-old, who finished sixth at last week’s U.S. Open, has won over fans across the country with his friendly manner off the course and enthusiastic — if not graceful — dance moves on it.

Funk coached the University of Maryland’s golf team from 1982 to 1988. At the TPC at Avenel, he’s almost royalty. And that means everybody wants a piece of him.

Funk didn’t play an official practice round this week, appearing in an exhibition Monday and a charity event Tuesday. He played in a pro-am at Avenel yesterday — the only time this week he has seen the course — and left shortly after for a reunion with some of his old Maryland players last night.

“I’ve been running around,” Funk said yesterday. “I just got here 10 minutes ago.”

Funk, who finished second in the tournament last year, only had one other chance to win at Avenel. In 1998, he led for the first three rounds only to shoot 77 on Sunday and lose by three shots to Scott Hoch. He has missed seven cuts and other than his two close calls has never finished better than 17th.

Things become even more complicated considering the whirlwind schedule Funk has kept over the last seven days. He plays here every year, but the tournament is usually the week before the Open, not after it. So after getting hammered by Shinnecock Hills, Funk is trying to come back and win a tournament he wants almost as badly — all while squeezing in the mandatory functions required of the Favorite Son.

But after the rousing support he received Saturday at Shinnecock and at the 2002 PGA Championship, where “Funk Fever” began at Minnesota’s Hazeltine National Golf Club, Long is convinced Funk responds better with the attention.

And if the short week is bothering him, Funk didn’t show it yesterday. He fired a 66 in the pro-am, making five birdies and shooting a 31 on the back nine.

“He doesn’t get to stop and think when it’s like that,” Long said. “He’s a reactive type of a player, and he does great when there’s commotion.”

Funk is ninth in the Ryder Cup standings and would like nothing more than to finish his career on the regular tour by making this year’s team, as well as the President’s Cup squad in 2005. Next season likely will be Funk’s last before he goes to the Champions Tour, and with both match play competitions in the United States and the President’s Cup at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Lake Manassas, Va., he’s taking dead aim at a big finish.

“That would be ridiculous at this point in my career to maybe make a Ryder Cup and make another President’s Cup,” said Funk, who played on last year’s President’s Cup team. “I’ve never played RTJ, and being here in the D.C. area, that would be huge.”

A win this week would go a long way toward solidifying Funk’s place on the Ryder Cup team, but there’s one more distraction. With next year’s Booz Allen Classic moving down the road to Congressional, this might be one of Funk’s last appearances at the TPC. Long said Funk probably would continue to play here if the schedule allows but that the Champions Tour will be his priority.

“If there’s a good senior event opposite this one, you probably won’t see him here,” Long said.

A swan song isn’t what Funk needs. He can handle the noise from the crowd. It’s the noise in his own head that might do him in.

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