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.