POTOMAC -- Fred Funk figured he had nothing to lose. He was already in the midst of one of his most disappointing seasons in a decade on the PGA Tour. He was about to play in a tournament, the $2 million Kemper Open, in which he had missed the cut the last three years and had never been in the hunt.
So Funk paid a visit to the doctor Tuesday afternoon.
Not a swing doctor or a sports psychologist, but Dr. Mark Whitten, a local eye surgeon who performed laser surgery on Funk in his Rockville office and sent the 41-year-old golfer back to the TPC at Avenel having corrected his vision from 20/600 to 20/25.
"He told me he had started putting a little better [before the surgery]," Whitten said yesterday. "I told him that he was going to be putting unbelievably in two days." Talk about following doctor's orders.
A 7-under par 64 by Funk in the opening round gave him a one-shot lead over Chris Perry. Four players -- Craig Parry of Australia, journeyman Tommy Armour, and unknowns J. L. Lewis and Mike Weir -- were three shots behind at 4-under-par 67. A dozen players, including defending champion Justin Leonard and reigning Masters champion Mark O'Meara, were at 3-under-par 68.
Funk's score was one shot off the course record and was his best score in the 31 Kemper Open rounds he had played here. It was only the third time that Funk had shot under 70 at Avenel -- he had an opening-round 65 in 1989 and a closing 69 in 1992 -- and was his best round of the year.
"It might have been my best round in two years," said Funk, who finished 38th on the money list last year and is 70th this year.
It was by far the best start Funk has had in a tournament this year. His scoring average is more than 73.5 for the opening round of the 16 events in which he has played, and Funk ranks 138th of 150 for the first two rounds. Funk, the University of Maryland golf coach from 1982 to 1988, had missed the cut five times but made the cut the past two weeks despite shooting 75 in the first round.
"It was a really good putting round," said Funk, who needed only 11 putts on the front nine and 26 overall. "It's something I've really never done well at Avenel. I don't know why, I have a hard time reading these greens. They consider me a local guy, but I don't know this course very well."
With the help of a putter he started using three weeks ago after going through 10 others this year, and with caddie Pablo Jungman reading his putts because of some residual blurred vision from the surgery, Funk's round included a 20-footer for birdie on the par-5 sixth hole, a 40-footer for birdie on the par-4 12th and another 20-footer for birdie on the short par-4 14th.
Funk also chipped in for birdie from 20 feet on the par-4 fourth, holed out a 50-foot bunker shot for birdie on the par-4 eighth and put a 196-yard approach to within 18 inches on the the par-4
15th to get to 8-under. After making his only bogey of the round on the par-4 16th hole, Funk got up and down from the bunker from four feet on the par-3 17th and lagged from 72 feet to a foot for par at 18.
"I didn't know what the course record was," said Funk, whose career best is a third-round 62 that put him into position to win the 1992 Houston Open, the first of his four tour victories. "I was actually thinking when I birdied 14, it would be pretty neat to birdie the last four and shoot 60. I didn't quite get there."
Asked if he was surprised by the round, considering his history at Avenel (no better than a tie for 27th), as well as the fact that he was coming off surgery, Funk said: "It's a surprise to me as anyone else. I'm sure a lot of other people are surprised too. It really is a big adjustment. It's not an automatic deal."
In fact, Funk was second-guessing himself for making what he called a "spur-of-the-moment decision," then taking his first swings without contact lenses on the practice tee before Wednesday's pro-am the day after undergoing the 10-minute procedure.
"It was probably pretty stupid, to do it in midseason," said Funk, who underwent the surgery after talking earlier in the year with Tom Kite and more recently with the girlfriend and caddie of Nick Faldo, both of whom were operated on by Whitten.
The immediate results were not exactly, uh, promising.
"I almost whiffed the first 10 balls," said Funk. "I had no idea where the ground was. I felt taller though. First time in my life I felt tall. If I had come the tournament and my first round is 85 with my new eyes, that would give me a little scare."
What he did yesterday was certainly noticed by the large gallery following him, as well as by Leonard, the reigning British Open champion who was playing with Funk and former U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson.
"After watching Fred making everything all day, I didn't know there were any birdies left out there," said Leonard, who finished one shot better than he did in the opening round last year. "It seemed like he birdied every hole."
Leonard was aware that Funk had the surgery.
"I'm going to see his doctor," said Leonard, who also plays with contacts. "This guy must be pretty good."
One of the first things Funk did when he left the course was call Whitten on his cell phone. Whitten later said that two days after having the surgery himself, he birdied the first hole he played. He didn't seem shocked at what Funk had done.
"Most people drive the next day," said Whitten. "The only concern I had was he was going to be operating at a different level."
Funk was on another level yesterday.
Higher than he had been in a while, higher than he had ever been at Avenel.
Pub Date: 6/05/98