Funk stands tall even if long game may come up short


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Powering a golf ball to infinity has become almost incumbent for success. Then along comes Fred Funk, who averages "only" 253.8 yards off the tee and therefore is relegated to the short-hitter category by the demanding standards of the professional game.

The driving of modern players like John Daly is awesome. They explode the ball into orbit. It's an especially important factor in the Masters tournament and Funk, while not about to surrender, agrees this is a "hitter's course."

Between Daly at 283.4 yards and Funk at 253.8 is an imposing list of 144 other players. This, indeed, is a revealing statistic for Funk to address -- that so many in the field continually knock it past him -- but it hasn't led to any inferiority complex.

Yet there's no reason to apologize. What he doesn't get in sheer yardage is compensated for by something akin to radar accuracy. Funk keeps the ball in the fairway with such regularity that he's fifth-best on the tour, with an percentage of 78.9 in an area of play that is topped by Doug Tewell's 82.3 percent.

As the golfers come out of the starting gate for the 58th renewal of the Masters, Funk, competing here for the first time, said: "I got to have the short game as sharp as it can be to do well. With the rains of the last couple weeks this is more a hitter's course than ever before."

Funk has previously been on the Augusta National Club property but only as a spectator. "It was either 1986 or '87 when I was coaching the University of Maryland golf team and we played a tournament hosted by Augusta College."

To view the Masters from outside the gallery ropes is a different kind of a mission than playing in it and he points out that television hasn't been able to accurately capture definitive pictures of the hilly terrain that makes up this scenic layout, built on what used to be a nursery.

This means Funk's drives aren't going to be getting any extra roll. The contour, plus a heavy track, will detract from the over-spin, thus increasing how far he has to move the ball on his second shot. The fairways are being cut green-to-tee, which means the ball, once it hits the ground, has a tendency for the grass to "grab" it.

Funk qualified for the Masters by winning the Shell Houston Open last year. In the process, he established a record for the Woodlands course -- a 62 -- while on his way to the $216,000 first prize.

For the better part of 1992, the Takoma Park native lived in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., but will be moving back to Maryland within two weeks. "I love it there," he insists.

As for impressions of the Masters, from the perspective of an initial participant, he likens the excitement to a carnival. But there are no Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds or shooting galleries -- the only one being the quest for knocking off birdies with what has to be a precise pitching/putting touch.

The overall Funk swing, never hurried or violent yet smoother than a mouse's ear, belongs on a postcard. His tempo is such that timing, rather than leverage, is why he has become an extremely competent player.

Commercial interests have come to him with endorsements, including Founders Clubs, Cross Creek Shirts and, don't forget, Penny/Stick Pretzels out of Altoona, Pa.

"A man named Bill Benzel made the deal with me on the natural-ingredient pretzels. They are in gourmet stores. He sends two cases a week to the tour locker room and the players eat them in a day. If they aren't there, they get all over me."

The Masters and its elite part in golf history impresses Funk. But he insists the Magnolia Open, now the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, played this week in Hattiesburg, Miss., offers the epitome in hospitality. "You get treated there like no place else on tour. They appreciate so much you are there."

To be sure, though, there's no comparison when it comes to which one a golfer covets. Everything about Funk is positive. There has been progress every year. In four seasons, from a rookie in 1989, he has lowered the scoring average to 71.07 and increased his take-home pay from $59,695 to $416,980 -- an ideal correlation.

But Funk is more than a collection of numbers. Tony Faw, a former teammate at Prince Georges Community College and at Maryland, says: "He's a gentleman. Always has been. We played in a lot of pro-ams. Fred told me the difference in the Middle-Atlantic section and on tour is the condition of the courses.

"They enable you to play your best. He's about 20 yards longer than before but still has to make up in accuracy what he doesn't have in distance."

The fight, though, doesn't always go the strongest, nor the race to the swiftest. Fred Funk is golf's personification of such a truism.

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