FRED FUNK: A FIGHTING CHANCE Ex-Maryland coach perseveres to rise toward top in PGA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Fred Funk was growing up in College Park, he boxed for eight years in the same junior Golden Gloves program that produced Sugar Ray Leonard. A weight class ahead of the former world champion, Funk won more fights than he lost but gave it up when he was 16 to follow a more gentlemanly pursuit -- golf.

"He was ranked No. 1 for his age a couple of years, but I know he didn't want to fight Sugar Ray," said Funk's mother, Ruby Wynosky. "I asked him to stop when he was big enough to get more than a bloody nose."

"At 17, you start fighting strictly by weight class, and I didn't

want to meet up with some guy from the Marine Corps," Funk said with a laugh, as well as his own teeth.

Figuratively speaking, Funk has gotten more than his share of bloody noses playing golf. He has been knocked down and out but always has come back for more. And though he hasn't reached the top of his sport, Funk's resilience finally is starting to pay off on the PGA Tour.

Nearly three years after gaining entry to this privileged group of millionaires and would-be millionaires, and two years after losing his playing card, the former University of Maryland golf coach has begun to display the talent, if not yet the consistency, to prove that he belongs playing with the best in the world.

After a seven-week stretch on the road, which has included three of his four top 10 finishes this year and a moment in the national spotlight, Funk will come home this week for the Kemper Open. The $1 million tournament is scheduled to begin Thursday in Potomac, at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel.

It will be a happy homecoming for Funk, who lives in Laurel, with new-found recognition from his sudden rise to 45th on the tour money list, new-found respect generated by a 10-under-par 62 this month in Atlanta and new-found confidence that he will keep his card for at least another year. Maybe longer.

But Funk's struggle isn't too far in the past to be forgotten.

"I wasn't sure I could play with these guys when I came out here," he said recently.

For good reason. When he qualified for the tour in 1989, on his fourth try, Funk was 32, and his resume didn't exactly jump out at you. He had spent seven years coaching at Maryland, his alma mater, and though he been one of the dominant players in the Middle Atlantic PGA, even Funk wondered if he could make this sort of leap.

"I didn't have the background of most of these guys," he said.

It didn't help that he still was recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder or that he suffered from an ulcer, a condition brought on by the medication he was taking for the injury. It didn't help that, at 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, he wasn't very long off the tee even before he got hurt.

And judging by that first season on tour -- 29 tournaments, $59,695 in prize money -- maybe Funk didn't belong. Not that his rookie season was a true barometer of his ability. "I basically dreaded every golf swing I took because it [the shoulder] hurt so much," he said. "I couldn't hit the ball out of my shadow."

The 6,500-yard courses Funk had mastered back home didn't prepare him for the 7,100-yard monsters he faced regularly on the tour. The airport-to-hotel-to-course-to-airport existence for two months at a stretch turned into a nightmarish grind.

"He was very frustrated," said his wife, Marianne, an engineer for the Defense Department. "He felt that he hadn't played the quality of golf he was capable of, and that he hadn't had the opportunity to show what he could do. He had always idolized the guys on the tour, so when he went out there, he thought they were like gods. Now, he believes he can play with them. It's a growing process."

Before the growing could start, the healing process had to be completed. Along with the bum shoulder was a fragile psyche. Funk had shown flashes that he could play as well as anyone on a given day, as happened at the 1987 PGA Championship or the 1989 Kemper, when he was near or at the top of the leader board after the first round.

But could his swing, his confidence and his shoulder hold up for a week or a month or an entire year? After getting back his card on his first try before last season, and after securing it by finishing 91st on the money list, it is a question that Funk no longer asks himself.

"The most satisfying thing for me is knowing that I'm going to keep my card this year," said Funk, who had earned $146,612 before this weekend's Southwestern Bell Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, a tournament in which he shared the lead after an opening-round 65. "My first year, I thought it was hard to get out there. It's much harder to keep your card and stay out.

"If I never did it again, I thought it was good for me to do. It was as lofty a goal as I have ever set for myself. My overall goal now is to keep improving, to become more consistent every week. But I put more pressure on myself than I probably should."

With a regimen of exercises to strengthen his shoulder and regular massages by therapists who follow the tour, Funk's performance reflects his rejuvenated health and steady improvement. His drives are beginning to get some distance, and he is ranked fifth on the tour in driving accuracy.

Though he has missed the cut eight times in 17 events, this season only two misses have come since the end of March. In the past five weeks, he has finished tied for seventh at Hilton Head, S.C., tied for sixth at Atlanta and tied for 23rd at the Memorial after a first-round 76. Funk shot a 68 yesterday, and his 201 total is two strokes off the lead. "I think a lot of guys out here are starting to know who Fred is," said 1990 Kemper Open champion Gil Morgan, one of the few tour veterans who befriended Funk early on.

If they hadn't recognized Funk before, they started to at the tour stop in Atlanta. After missing the cut the previous two weeks, Funk shot an opening-round 62. It tied Scott Simpson for lowest score on the tour this year and was three shots off Al Geiberger's tour record of 59.

Though Funk shot a 77 the next day, his fellow pros had to respect the way he came back with scores of 68 and 67 in Sunday's 36-hole final. Last week, Tom Watson sought out Funk to offer his congratulations. So did Lanny Wadkins, who barely had said a word to Funk when they played together last month at Hilton Head.

"As they see you can compete and you'll be around for more than a year, they get a little warmer," said Funk, who will turn 35 next month. "It's nice to be acknowledged."

Funk's blue-collar approach to golf took root during his early years. During his summers off from Maryland, he worked overnight as a route manager for the now-defunct Washington Star, then drove to local tournaments in the morning.

After graduating from Maryland in 1980 -- he had flunked out after his freshman year and spent two years at Prince George's Community College -- Funk tried the Florida mini-tour in 1981 with little success and returned home. Why did he quit?

"I was broke," he said.

So he took a job at Maryland, with dual responsibilities as head coach and assistant pro at the university's golf course. Along with the money Funk made in local pro-ams, it helped pay the bills. It was also fun, but the idea of playing on the PGA Tour gnawed at him.

"When I was playing for him at Maryland, we'd go out on the course and he'd play like it was the U.S. Open," said Don Slebodnik, who succeeded Funk as head coach when he left Maryland. "He yelled at us and told we should get something out of it every time we played. He was the toughest competitor I've ever seen."

Funk played the satellite tour during the summers of 1984 and 1985, and tried both years to qualify for the PGA Tour. But the shoulder injury, sustained a few weeks after the 1987 PGA Championship, derailed Funk's plans. "I was done for a couple of years," he said.

Once he made the tour, other obstacles were thrown at him. There was a question of how he was going to survive financially in a world that costs an estimated $75,000 a year just to break even. Though his wife's job was solid, traveling the tour is a fast way to deplete the bank account.

With the help of some local businessmen who paid Funk's travel expenses, as well as the mortgage, he was able to worry only about golf. And there was plenty to worry about. What seems glamorous to outsiders is often grueling to those who live it, especially those at the bottom of the tour.

"People don't know how hard this is," said Funk, who was able to pay back his sponsors last year. "There's a fine line between making it and going home."

Apparently, Funk has crossed the line and is firmly inside the gallery ropes. Though he said that there is still some weakness in the shoulder, he seems to be planning for a future on the tour. And now he finds himself faced with another quandary: when to play and when to take some time off.

Because he doesn't have a business manager, that, too, seems to be a difficult equation to master. Asked how he mapped out his current schedule, which included 13 tournaments in the past 15 weeks, Funk said: "I don't know how to do it. There are so many good tournaments and great courses in a row. I'm learning as I go along."

Said his wife: "He keeps saying he'll skip this tournament or that tournament, but when he's home and watching on TV, he wants to be out there. Fred is a self-motivated person. I think it [golf] will always be the No. 1 thing in his life."

Those priorities could change later this summer, at least a little. The Funks are expecting their first child in August. By then, he might have improved his stature on the tour. As for his first tour victory, Funk is confident that it will happen. He has been in the hunt at a couple of tournaments this year.

"Knocking at the door," he said.

And wiping the blood from his nose.

How Funk has fared in 1991

Tournament.. .. .. ..Position.. .. .. .. ..Won

Telecom.. .. .. ..Missed cut.. .. .. $1,012

Hawaiian Open.. .. ..Tied for 9th.. .. $25,457

Phoenix Open.. .. .. Tied for 12th.. ..$19,000

Bob Hope.. .. .. .. .Missed cut.. .. .. ..$500

Shear.-Lehman.. .. ..Missed cut.. .. .. .. $25

Open.. .. ... ..Missed cut.. .. .. .. ..0

Doral.. .. .. .. .. .76th.. .. .. .. .. $2,632

Honda Classic.. .. ..Tied for 25th.. .. $8,166

Nestle Invitation.. .Missed cut.. .. .. .. ..0

TPC.. .. .. .. .. ...Missed cut.. .. .. .. ..0

Deposit Guaranty.. ..4th.. .. .. .. .. $14,400

MCI Heritage.. .. .. Tied for 7th.. .. $31,166

Greensboro.. .. .. ..Missed cut.. .. .. .. ..0

Byron Nelson.. .. ...Missed cut.. .. .. .. ..0

Bell South Atlanta...Tied for 6th.. .. $34,760

Memorial.. .. .. .. .Tied for 23rd.. ..$11,040

Total (16 events): $146,612

Funk's PGA earnings

* 1989: $59,695 in earnings; 157th on money list; two Top 10 finishes

* 1990: $179,346 in earnings; 91st on money list; three Top 10 finishes

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