BETHESDA, Md. – Fred Funk felt as if he had won the U.S. Open, his voice cracking when he tried to speak, the tears flowing moments later. He didn’t earn a trophy that day, only a tee time.
That’s how much this major championship means to him. That’s why he made the effort to go through 36 holes of qualifying when there are plenty of signs that he should sit this one out.
Funk turns 55 on Tuesday. He had knee replacement surgery more than a year ago, and now is dealing with tissue that connects the hip to the knee and is causing him great pain. That explains why he hasn’t made it to the final two rounds in any of the six PGA Tour events he has played this year, and why he only had two top-10s on the 50-and-older Champions Tour.
So why punish himself in a U.S. Open qualifier against kids half his age?
For starters, Funk grew up not far from Congressional, a course that at one time in life he could only dream of playing. He was the college golf coach at Maryland. He wound up playing his first PGA Tour event at Congressional. And this surely would have been his last chance playing in the U.S. Open before a hometown crowd.
That explains his reaction when he narrowly qualified.
“The first question I get is, ‘What does this mean to you?’ And I broke down,” Funk said. “I didn’t really expect that because I didn’t know I had that kind of feelings, or emotion, in me for that. But I think it was a combination of things – how I’ve been playing the last few months, and then making it here, my hometown.
“It meant a lot to me because it’s my hometown, and Congressional is a very special spot. It’s pretty neat.”
No other major has so many dreamers, from the 13 amateurs in the 156-man field to the 28 players who had to go through 18-hole local and 36-hole sectional qualifying. The last player to win the U.S. Open after going through both stages of qualifying was Orville Moody in 1969 in Houston.
Despite a career that features The Players Championship among his eight PGA Tour victories, Funk could fall into that category.
He is the oldest player at Congressional this week. On a course that measures 7,574 yards on the scorecard, Funk was among the shortest (albeit straightest) off the tee even when he was young. And he has nearly 10 years on the oldest U.S. Open champion in history; Hale Irwin was 45 when he won at Medinah in 1990.
A dreamer? Funk isn’t buying that.
He found something at that qualifier last week. Instead of worrying about his mechanics, he went back to enjoying himself. And with his 15-year-old son Taylor on the bag – he will also caddie at Congressional – Funk played like he was back in his prime. After getting into the U.S. Open, he closed with a 62 on Sunday in a Champions Tour event to finish in a tie for third.
“Nobody knows how good they’re going to play, but I still have high expectations,” Funk said. “I’m not here just to walk two rounds or four rounds and just show up. I want to be able to be competitive, and I truly believe I can still be competitive when I’m playing well and feeling good.”
Funk played the U.S. Open last year as the reigning U.S. Senior Open champion and he tied for 70th. The year before, on what many consider one of the strongest U.S. Open courses at Bethpage Black, he still went through qualifying. Funk made the cut and wound up in a tie for 60th, better than expected from a 53-year-old on a beast of a course.
Then again, Funk has been defying odds for nearly as long as he has been playing.
He didn’t make the golf team at Maryland as a freshman, so he transferred to a junior college until he was good enough to play for the Terps. He tried the mini-tours out of college until he ran out of money, then took over as Maryland coach and kept working on his game until he realized he wasn’t far off from the big leagues.
He qualified for his first PGA Tour event in the 1982 Kemper Open. It was held at Congressional, and Funk tied for 51st to earn a check of a whopping $947.20.
“I don’t know why I made it,” he said. “I was just a very hard worker, tenacious, and somewhere along that line I started believing in myself. I look back and I just go, ‘Man, I did all right.”’
Only now is not the time to look back.
“I still expect to achieve a lot more,” Funk said.
He’ll have the crowd on his side, not only from being a hometown favorite but as an inspiration as a guy who wouldn’t quit. He’ll need much more than that on a Congressional course with greens that already are getting firm under warm sunshine, and in a major which only twice in the last five years has yielded a winning score under par.
Monday was the first full day of practice. The range was filled with mostly amateurs and local qualifiers wanting to soak up the experience. Others spent the day chipping and putting, hitting balls, perhaps getting in nine holes of practice, knowing to pace themselves for what figures to be a long week.
Ten players have won the last 10 majors, suggesting parity is greater than ever in golf, especially with Tiger Woods no longer on top of his game – and not even at Congressional for the U.S. Open as he tries to mend his left leg.
Even so, PGA champion Martin Kaymer figures only 30 or 40 players have a realistic chance of winning. He didn’t mention names, although Funk was probably not on that short list.