Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

One Of Funk’s Punks

I try not to root for any particular player or team when I’m covering an event. I always like to see the home team win. It makes the fans happy, most of my friends are happy and certainly it makes a reporter’s job easier. Players and coaches are much more willing to talk after a win. At a golf tournament I like to see good play, good shots, an aggressive approach and somebody win instead of everybody else losing. And I do root for certain players. You get to know some of the guys when you hang around long enough, and you can’t help but hope they play well.

This brings us to Fred Funk.

He’s an easy guy to like and being a Maryland guy, I’ve always followed his career closely. I tried that with former PGA Tour player George Burns and that was a disaster. Burns was just gruff, rude and mean spirited, almost the exact opposite of Funk. Growing up in Tacoma Park, near the Maryland campus, Fred graduated from Maryland and became the golf coach there as well. So he’s no silver spoon guy. To the contrary, he even was a circulation manager for a newspaper for a while. A regular guy, with a regular job who just happened to be a very good golfer.

He was playing so well, he was encouraged to try the PGA Tour, and qualified as a Tour member in 1989. Like a lot of guys, he picked Ponte Vedra as his home to be near the practice facility at the TPC as Sawgrass. Funk might play more events than anybody else on the PGA Tour, so he really could live anywhere. Within the last year he was ready to move to Orlando, but at the last second changed his mind. So living in the area and also being a Maryland grad, it’s pretty natural that we’d have a connection.

I always check his scores in the agate type, and usually seek him out when I’m at a Tour event, if only to say hi. Last week he was his usual accommodating self leading up to the Players Championship, again making it easy to wish him well as the tournament drew near. A 65 in the first round showed that the golf course was not favoring the long hitters like a regular tour stop, and showed that Funk had his putter working, glaringly the weakest part of the game. Between the weather delays and the wind on Monday it was hard to predict who would emerge as the winner, and for the longest time, there really wasn’t a favorite. Until Funk birdied 12 and 13 to pull ahead of the field and declare himself as a contender.

At that point he had a two shot lead and almost anywhere else, the tournament is over. But that’s when he made it interesting. “I don’t make anything easy on myself,” Funk said after the final round. Three putt bogies on 14, 15 and 17. You could see the tournament slipping away from the fan favorite. “I said to myself in the middle of the fairway on 16, ‘How many more chances are you going to get?” That’s when he made his final birdie of the tournament, the insurance that he would eventually need.

How he played 18 was textbook in his approach if you want to win. Risky, but textbook none the less. Fade the ball down the left side of the fairway with your drive: Smooth a six iron from 170 that “I caught it on the toe,” according to Funk. Bunker shot to 5 ½ feet, and one putt for par. “I just wanted to put a good stroke on it,” Fred said right before the celebrating began. “I didn’t want to walk off 18, make or miss, thinking I didn’t hit a very good putt. My caddie reminded me it wasn’t over, but I said ‘It is for me!’ I had finally made something.”

When Fred was standing over that putt on 18, it was as quiet as I’ve ever heard it on the final hole at the Players Championship. There have been important putts there before. You only have to go back to last year’s finish when Adam Scott needed that 12 footer to avoid a playoff. But this was different. You could almost hear the silent prayers from the stands trying to will the ball in the hole. I was far enough away that I was able to say out loud “Let yourself do it Fred.” One of the guys I work with was standing next to me, and when I said that he gave me a startled look. I guess it was something out of character for me, but I really wanted him to make it. “So did everybody else,” a guy told me at the gas station later. I laughed, but got his point. Funk’s popularity cuts across all kinds of lines through the gallery. Everybody can relate to his game and his story. Now that story is a little richer. The right guy won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Time To Move On

It’s not unexpected, this “better than it should be” run that comes to a sudden end. But when you’re in a bit over your head, you know it from the beginning. Eventually, that pretty girl that took a liking to you is going to dump you out on the street, and without a lot of sentimentality. She was too good for you anyway, and you knew it. But there was something in the back of your mind that said you just might be up to the task. Oh, she’s high maintenance alright. The instant you have any kind of a relationship with her, everybody’s a critic. What does she see in you? It won’t last anyway! She’s just using him! And it’s all true, except you’re having your fun in the meantime and soaking it all in.

Perhaps that’s a little overly dramatic, but Florida’s run to and in the NCAA tournament had all of the trappings of a relationship you knew was going to end, you just didn’t know when.

Two months ago, Gators fans and detractors were wondering if they were going to make the NCAA tournament at all. Florida was getting beat by teams they weren’t supposed to get beat by out of conference and just making the Big Dance seemed to be on a remote horizon. They didn’t play defense or rebound very well, and even their head coach said they didn’t “play smart.” Fast forward to the end of the regular season and Florida overcomes a 17 point deficit to beat South Carolina in Columbia. They’re scoring, they’re playing defense, they’re rebounding and in turn, they’re winning. Without much offense, they beat Kentucky in their final regular season game, and then run through the SEC Tournament, beating Kentucky again, this time in the finals to win the tournament for the first time ever. They get a four seed in the NCAA Tournament and instantly become “the team nobody wants to play.”

In other words, the head cheerleader is now dating the third stringer who has suddenly become a starter! But you knew it would end, just not how it did.

The Gators were supposed to get beat by North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Instead, their season ended in the second round, again, this time losing to Villanova. Granted Villanova was also a “team nobody wants to play” but Florida seemed to forget everything that put them on that late season run, all at the same time. They didn’t rebound, they didn’t play defense, and once again, their offense disappeared. Florida’s leading scorer, Anthony Roberson had five points. One basket and two free throws. Matt Walsh had 12, but none in the first half.

Something has happened to those guys in NCAA Tournament play. It seems they haven’t scored a meaningful point in the Tournament since they came to Florida. With two fouls, Billy Donovan took Roberson out of the game midway through the first half. And the Gators went on their best run, pulling within one at 44-43. But all the effort just to get there took its toll as Florida didn’t score a basket for the next seven minutes and eventually lost, 76-65. Donovan called it “a better feeling than last year. We went down fighting.”

But it’s still a second round loss, a quicker exit than should be expected around Gainesville. David Lee is the only senior on the team, but he might not be the only player leaving. Roberson and Walsh have made some noises about turning professional, but where are they going to play? A six foot point guard has to fill it up night after night, and Roberson hasn’t done that in his career at Florida. There are a million six foot guys who can handle the ball and are streaky shooters. Walsh doesn’t have a position and would have to elevate his game to get to be Larry Bird-lite.

So would you rather them leave so you can get on with it, or stick around another year to see if they can get past “second round-itis?” Are they part of the problem or are they part of the solution?

There’s been a lot of talk about team “chemistry” this year, something that seemed to disappear during the loss to Villanova. And this is where Billy Donovan comes in. He’ll have to figure out what to do with these guys if they stay which might be a bigger task than replacing them if they leave. Freshmen Taurean Green, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all got quality minutes this year and showed they could play. Chris Richard was a contributor as was Adrian Moss.

It’ll play out in the next couple of weeks as Donovan gets some answers and zeros in on the recruits he needs. They need another big scorer and if they get that, Donovan will tell Walsh and Roberson to move on. And he probably should. The only constant in college basketball these days is change and for Florida it would be a change for the better.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Get It Right …

As the ball bounced around the rim on Kentucky’s last shot, you couldn’t help but wonder how if it went in it, whether it would change either team’s season. For the Wildcats, the ball in the basket means a win, some momentum, the continuation of a streak against Florida, but perhaps more importantly, almost a lock on a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. For the Gators, it meant confidence, momentum, a lock on going to the tournament, a decent seeding and momentum in the SEC Tournament this weekend in Atlanta.

Florida’s been a strange team, but playing their best basketball right now. And they’re not a run and gun fire away team any longer. They’re looking for the high percentage shot and they’re playing great defense. After the win over Georgia, I said on the air that they scored 50 against the Bulldogs but if they “did that on Sunday “against Kentucky, they’d lose by 30.

Actually, they’d have only lost by two.

The difference is Billy Donovan knows what kind of team he has, and he’s convinced them that that’s what they are. I know that sounds confusing, but hot shot high school players pick schools where they’re going to shine. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh didn’t come to Florida to run a half court offense and play great defense. But with those three, Al Horford and the combination of any of the other guards and forwards, the Gators are a tough, half court team that can play defense. That’s how they held the Wildcats to just 52 points. Donovan recognized that early in the year, perhaps as early as the Louisville game at home. He knew his team was young, but the Cardinals showed him that his current crop can’t run the floor for 40 minutes and keep up with great offensive teams. The only way they do that is if Walsh is hitting his threes and Roberson is over fifty percent from the floor. That was happening too infrequently, this team got smarter, and Donovan convinced them that’s how they were going to win.

Playing hard is something that has become a hallmark of any Donovan coached team. They’ll hustle, jump on loose balls and throw themselves all over the court. That can take a toll on the offensive end, especially if you’re constantly trying to run coast to coast and find the 3 on 2 breakaways on every possession.

So is Florida going to win the National Championship?


Are they going to win the SEC Tournament?


Playing as the number two seed, they get the bye and will have to play three games in three days instead of four in four days as a lower seed.

Who can they beat in Atlanta?


Who can they lose to?


So the paradox continues.

They can’t be a slow starter no matter who they play in the second round on Friday. David Lee as the lose senior and Roberson and Walsh as the team leaders and juniors have been in this situation enough to know that going 1000 mph from the opening tip is the key to winning any tournament games.

They kind of remind me of that old golf saying: “I’d like to play my normal game. Just once.”