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Funk in good spirits, game in good shape heading to Open

CONOVER, N.C. – Fred Funk hasn’t been happy with his golf game over the last seven months, and even considered dropping off the Champions Tour until he straightened things out.

But Funk’s a happier man after qualifying for this year’s U.S. Open, and looks to carry that momentum into this weekend’s Greater Hickory Classic.

“That was a really good springboard for me,” Funk said Thursday of qualifying. “I expect to play good now. I’m looking forward to teeing off for the first time in a long time. I always expect to hit bad shots, but I also expect to hit good shots now.

“I’ve been searching for things, but the big thing was that I just went back to being me.”

The ninth-annual Champions Tour event will tee off Friday on the Rock Barn Golf and Spa’s Robert Trent Jones course – and without some of the tour’s top players and a former winner.

Only four of the top 10 players in the Charles Schwab Cup standings are entered in this year’s event, which is being played in early June for the first time after eight years in late August and early September.

Among the missing are Tom Lehman and Tom Watson, currently No. 1 and No. 2 in the standings; and two-time Classic winner Jay Haas, who is taking the weekend off to attend his youngest son Bill’s wedding.

However, among the entries in this year’s Classic field are Nick Price, currently third in the standings; and defending event champion Gary Hallberg, looking to become the third repeat winner and the first to win back-to-back titles since R.W. Eaks in 2007-2008.

The date change also moved the Classic to the weekend before the start of the U.S. Open, being played this year at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., after a 14-year absence.

Yet Funk didn’t think he’d get the chance to play in a U.S. Open again at Congressional, considering his performance this season. He had made the cut just once in six PGA Tour events, and had just two top-10 finishes in nine Champions Tour events.

“I’ve been really struggling this year,” Funk said. “So I decided to just throw away everything people have been telling me, and to go back to what worked for me all through the 2000s when I was playing well.

“I decided that 36-hole tournament was going to be the springboard for the rest of my season … but I knew just three holes into it that I was doing the right thing.”

Funk went on to win the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier Monday at Rockville, Md. It was the second time in the last three years that the eight-time PGA Tour winner has made the Open through a qualifying tournament.

Now, Funk wants to carry what he learned into this weekend’s Classic, where his best finish is a tie for ninth last year.

“I’m looking forward to this week,” the six-time Champions Tour winner said. “I plan on using everything I’ve learned and just let it go. If I play well, great; if I don’t, fine – I’ll move on from that. But I know I’m doing the right thing.”