POTOMAC -- Fred Funk came to the Tournament Players Club at Avenel for last year's Kemper Open ready to make his breakthrough on the PGA Tour. The week before, he had been in the hunt at The Colonial and eventually finished tied for sixth. Two weeks before that, his opening-round 62 in Atlanta had made headlines.
The homecoming for the former University of Maryland golf coach didn't prove to be a happy one: He missed the cut for the second straight year. It started a prolonged slump, which bottomed out in the final round of the PGA Championship in August. The slump, as well as a persistent shoulder injury, began to raise questions about Funk's future on the tour.
"I had secured my playing [card] privileges early, and I did get a little too lax," said Funk, who made $192,212 of his season's earnings of $227,915 before the Kemper. "I told myself to go out and enjoy it, not get too upset with a bad round. I can't play like that. I've got to be pretty intense to play well."
When Funk returns home this week to play in the 1992 Kemper Open -- the $1.1 million tournament begins Thursday -- the breakthrough has been made and, with arthroscopic surgery last September, the shoulder is as good as it's been in a while. A two-shot victory in the Shell Houston Open earlier this month was worth $216,000 in prize money and, more important, an immeasurable amount of professional security.
But, even in the afterglow, the questions about Funk linger. Is his slump, which has continued this year, over? Was the victory, which earned Funk a two-year exemption and an invitation to next year's Masters, merely a happy one-week interlude or a launching pad for a more consistent career? Will Funk, one of the oldest first-time winners in tour history, win again?
"I don't think it was a fluke," said Funk, 36, whose best finish this year other than Houston was a tie for 22nd at the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic. "But I'm sure some people think it was."
If others do, it is certainly understandable. Funk's first victory might have come right out of a fairy tale, but his career is even more implausible. Newspaper dispatcher-turned-college golf coach makes tour on fourth try in 1988. Loses playing card in 1989, but gets it back later that year. Starts making progress, reinjures shoulder, gets operated on by famous orthopedic surgeon Frank Jobe.
Even Funk had some doubts about how long he could stay on tour without any signs of significant progress, with a patient wife and an infant son at home in Laurel, with the astronomical tour expenses piling up as quickly as the missed cuts. It got to the point where Funk had begun to think about, if not seriously consider, looking for a club job.
"It's not that I was playing poorly," Funk said. "I was making cuts, but I wasn't making a lot of money. I really thought I could win out here. But you get your head beat in a few times, and you begin to wonder."
Said Funk's wife, Marianne: "I don't think he ever really thought about quitting, but he was very discouraged. He was beginning to feel the pressure. Nobody wants to go back to Q [qualifying] school."
Funk recalled what happened at last summer's PGA. In contention going into the final round at Crooked Stick outside Indianapolis, Funk shot the day's highest score -- 81. It caused him to free fall to 57th and cost him an invitation to this year's Masters, among other things.
"I got off to a bad start, and it just snowballed," said Funk, who hit his first two drives into the woods. "The 18th hole just seemed to get farther away with every shot. I wanted that round so bad, maybe too much. I put too much heat on myself."
The recurring injury to his left shoulder -- the result of an abnormally wide spacing of the bones around his rotator cuff -- added to Funk's woes. After a promising start, Funk finished the year ranked 76th. Not low enough to lose his card, but certainly not high enough to quash the doubts.
It didn't get better this year. After missing the cut at the MCI Heritage Classic in Hilton Head, S.C. -- the third time in nine tournaments he failed to play into the weekend -- Funk decided to take off the following week. He went home and relaxed before he rejoined the tour in Houston.
"I came out very refreshed," he said.
It showed. After solid rounds of 68 and 72 helped him make the cut, a 62 gave Funk the lead going into the final round. It was uncharted territory for Funk, a position he hadn't been in since his days on the Mid-Atlantic PGA circuit.
What helped Funk throughout the final round was that the biggestnames in the field at Houston -- Fred Couples and Davis Love III, the tour's two leading money-winners -- were way back in the pack. It also helped that none of those in contention made a serious charge.
Still, it was difficult to hold together his lead and his emotions.
"I had the pressure of being the leader from the time I started to the time I finished," Funk said. "It proved a lot to me. The only shot I regretted was the one on the last hole."
After a perfect drive at 18, Funk had 170 yards left to the hole and a lake in front of the green. Uncomfortable with his alignment, unsure about his club selection, Funk backed off once. He stayed with his 6-iron and watched as the ball sailed, and then faded, toward the green.
"I was sure it was in the water," said Funk, who flipped his club up in the air in disgust.
The ball cleared the water by a few feet and didn't trickle back. This was definitely splendor in the grass for Funk, who chipped up and putted in from four feet to secure the victory.
"Whether I break through again, I've done what I set out to," said Funk, who recovered from a first-round 74 last week at The
Southwestern Bell Colonial to finish tied for 34th. "Right now, I'm pretty content."
He was certainly a popular winner. A couple of hundred letters and telegrams arrived in the mail. Messages from old friends and new ones were left in locker rooms wherever the tour happened to stop. EvenWashington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, who'll be playing in this week's Kemper, sent congratulations through his sister-in-law, a neighbor of the Funks.
"He's pursuing a lot of people's dream," said Marianne Funk, an engineer for the federal government.
Almost a month later, Funk isn't sure how it has changed his life, aside from moving him up to a middle-level group of players who get better tee times. The benefits of playing in the World Series of Golf later this year and in the Masters next year, won't be fully felt until he steps on the first tees at Firestone and Augusta National.
"The only thing [different] is the bank account and tax liability," said Funk, whose victory raised his season's earnings nearly tenfold, to more than a career-high $240,000, and pushed up his ranking from 139th to 18th. "That's about it right now. Nothing's really hit yet."
But those who know the feeling of that first PGA Tour win believe that the victory will give him more incentive, and certainly more confidence. Billy Andrade, whose first tour win came at the Kemper last year and whose second victory came a week later, saw a difference after playing with Funk the week after in Atlanta.
"When he got to Atlanta, he was elated," Andrade said. "He was walking on air. Everybody was really happy for him. It's good to see a guy who doesn't have all this God-given ability, who's worked hard for everything he gets out here, win a tournament."
"I think Fred's been sort of searching for a little clue that says, 'I really belong,' " said Vinnie Giles, a Richmond, Va.-based agent who represents Funk and several other tour pros, including Love and Lanny Wadkins. "The victory was a confirmation."
But will it be the culmination, or only the beginning?
When: Thursday through Sunday, 72-hole tournament (sudden death if needed); Merrill-Lynch Shootout today (3 p.m.); pro-am tomorrow.
Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Potomac.
Directions: I-95 south to I-495 west. Exit River Road toward Potomac. Follow signs for parking.
Who: A field of 156 players, including U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart, PGA champion John Daly, two-time Kemper Open champion Greg Norman, defending champion Billy Andrade and Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien.
How much: $1.1 million in prize money, $198,000 first place.
TV: Friday, USA Network, 4-6 p.m.; Saturday, CBS (channels 11, 9), 4-6 p.m.; Sunday, CBS, 3:30-6 p.m.
Tickets: Can be purchased at cash offices of any Woodward & Lothrop's or by telephone (202) 432-SEAT. Grounds, tomorrow through Sunday, $22 (includes parking). Grounds and pavilion tomorrow through Sunday, $33 (includes parking). Practice round yesterday, $10.
Funk at a glance
How Fred Funk has performed on the PGA Tour (MC: missed cut; DQ: disqualified):
.. .. .. .. .. .. ..1992 Tourn.. . .. . . . .. . . ............. .. . . . Finish
Bob Hope Classic. .... . . ....... ...... . .Missed cut
Phoenix Open.. . .................. . .......Missed cut
AT&T; Challenge.. . . . ... . . . ......... .. .. .. T41
Hawaiian Open . .. . . . .. . . . . ... . . . .. .. T57
Northern Telecom Open. . .. . . . . ..... . .. .. ..T59
Doral Ryder Open. . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . .. . T76
Honda Classic.. .. . . . . . . . . . . . .... .... T29
Freeport-McMoran. .. .... . .................Missed cut
Deposit Guaranty. . . ....... . . . . . . .. .. ... T22
MCI Heritage Classic.. .... . . ... . . . . .Missed cut
Shell Houston Open. .... ............... .... . ......1
Atlanta BellSouth Classic. ........... ........... T32
GTE Byron Nelson.. .. .. ..... . ... . ... . ..... T68
Southwestern Bell Colonial. . . ...... . . ....... T34
In Kemper. . . . . . . . . . . . .... Career earnings
Yr.. . ........ Fin. ....... Yr... .. Money. .. Rank
82. .. . . . . T51. ...... .89. .. . $59,695. . 157
86. . . ....... DQ. ...... .90. . . .$179,346... 91
'88. ............73. .......'91. .....$227,915. . 76
'89.. . . . ... .T27. . .....92. .....$254,328... 20
'90. . ....... .. MC
'91. . .......... MC