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Funk, now in the money, strives to be on the money Former Terps coach seeks major impact

THE BALTIMORE SUN

POTOMAC -- Fred Funk has four wins on the PGA Tour, as many as reigning Player of the Year Tom Lehman.

Funk earned $1.5 million in prize money over the two previous years, more than one of golf's most recognizable figures, Payne Stewart.

And this is a guy who was cut from the University of Maryland golf team and was ready to quit as a playing professional five years ago. It's also not enough for Funk, the straight-hitting grinder who yearns for a loftier status.

"I've been real hard on myself," Funk said. "I want to get to what I consider another level. I've had two great years money-wise, but it's not that I want to make more money. I just want to be in position in tough, big golf tournaments. I feel I should be playing better in majors, and be capable of winning more often."

Golf's two-week stop in Montgomery County might mean more to Funk than anyone else. What better venues than near his roots, at the Kemper Open this week and the U.S. Open next week, for the big-event breakthrough he longs for?

Funk isn't daunted by the size of the stages; the burden of being a local hero; the 41st birthday he'll mark June 14; or the fact that he thrives in warmer weather. If you think it would be outrageous for Funk to suddenly rise and run with the world's best, you aren't familiar with the hurdles he's overcome to get this far.

No one has played in more PGA Tour events in the 1990s than Funk, a workaholic who's been in 18 of 21 tournaments this year. Funk rests about as often as Cal Ripken, and it's as if he doesn't want to be caught on sabbatical on a weekend when his game would be on.

"Fred is totally without pretension," said Jeff Sluman, a friend of Funk's who likewise plays a heavy schedule. "You can honestly say we love our jobs. We're among the guys who didn't come out of college and walk on the tour and have the game down pat. You take a circuitous route, and you appreciate it more when you do get out here."

At age 20, the legend of Tiger Woods was growing, and Phil Mickelson already had won, as an amateur, on the PGA Tour.

Funk? He first held a club at age 11, but spent as much time as a cart boy at Maryland's course as he did playing there. He tried just about every sport -- how many country clubbers boxed for eight years for their junior boys club? -- and wasn't even the Prince George's County champion when he golfed for High Point High in Beltsville.

His introduction to college golf resulted in Funk being cut from Maryland in 1975. He transferred to Prince George's Community College and returned two years later to earn a top spot with the Terps, but it's hard to threaten the stars from Wake Forest when you're also a circulation supervisor for the Washington Star.

Funk gave a satellite tour in Florida a shot, but only succeeded in blowing all his savings and some of his parents'. In 1982, he was hired to coach Maryland, and held that job until 1988, when he earned his PGA Tour card.

He promptly lost it when he earned less than $60,000 the following year, and endured Q-school again. Funk's consistency and Top 10 finishes steadily improved, but in the spring of 1992 he doubted his ability to be an impact player. The low point came the week before the Houston Open.

"I was playing terrible," Funk said. "I had just missed the cut on a course made for me, and I started getting my resume together. I told myself, 'I don't belong out here.' I was going to go back and try to be a club pro. My mind was so negative. I didn't have any expectations when I went to Houston."

Voila. A course-record 62 on Saturday at the TPC Woodlands course put Funk in contention, he didn't relent on Sunday and got his first win. Funk won twice in 1995, and last year got his fourth PGA Tour win in the B.C. Open.

Funk is hardly a big hitter. Last year at the Masters, he entertained the crowd with some 40-yard taps while John Daly was clearing the net at the range, but he's traded 25 yards for the fairway. Funk has been the most accurate driver on tour the last two years, and is currently fourth in that category.

Funk's focus has been on his improving his irons, but how do you fight off the calendar, not to count all the young Tigers? For Funk, the only method is keep playing. If he isn't at a tournament, he'll sneak out for nine holes at the TPC Sawgrass course at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., four miles from his home.

"I play too much, but I enjoy it and I'm still trying to get to that next level," Funk said. "I'm learning more every year, but the one thing I haven't learned is to pace myself."

Kemper facts

Site: TPC at Avenel (7,005 yards, par 71), Potomac

When: Today-Sunday

Purse: $1.5 million

Winner's share: $270,000

TV: Chs. 13, 9 (Saturday, 4-6 p.m.; Sunday, 3-6 p.m.)

Funk file

Age: Turns 41 on June 14

College: Maryland PGA

Tour victories: 1992 Shell Houston Open; 1995 Ideon Classic at Pleasant Valley and Buick Challenge; 1996 B.C. Open

Career earnings: $3,299,373

1997 earnings: $293,581

Best 1997 finish: Tied for fourth at Nissan Open

Pub Date: 6/05/97

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