POTOMAC -- He had a five-shot lead and seemed to be on the verge of lapping the field at the TPC at Avenel in the third round of the Kemper Open. He was doing his best imitation of Tiger Woods, cracking 300-yard drives and making one big putt after another.
And then Fred Funk walked up the hill to the 13th tee yesterday afternoon.
It was there he found two groups and more than a 20-minute wait ahead of him. It was also there that Funk lost his rhythm and,
ultimately, much of his lead. He will find out today whether it was where he lost a tournament he had dominated since the opening round.
"It was tough," Funk said of the unscheduled break that lasted long enough for playing partner Craig Parry to fall asleep under a tree. "I definitely lost a little rhythm on the back nine. I started second-guessing myself a little bit because of the wind."
A bogey at the short par-4 14th hole -- ending a stretch of 34 holes without one -- and another bogey at the par-3 17th brought Funk back to even-par for the day and, more importantly, brought many in the field back into contention.
Funk finished with an even-par 71, leaving him at 12-under 201 and one shot ahead of Stuart Appleby. The 27-year-old Australian backed up a course record-tying 63 Friday with a 2-under 69. Chris DiMarco was two shots behind after a 1-under 70.
Also climbing into the hunt was Tommy Tolles, whose 5-under 66 brought him to 9-under 204. Three players -- Scott Hoch (68), Clark Dennis (70) and Brad Fabel (70) -- are four shots behind. Defending champion Justin Leonard fell 10 shots back after a 5-over 76.
But Funk didn't seem flustered by the fact he lost four shots off his lead.
"If I hadn't won a golf tournament yet and was leading it, I might be a little uptight," Funk said.
Funk, 41, will be looking for the fifth victory of his 10-year career on the PGA Tour and his first in nearly two years. One of Funk's wins came when he went wire-to-wire in the 1995 Ideon Classic. In that tournament, he lost a four-shot lead in the final round and came back to win with a birdie on the last hole.
"I lost the lead early when Jim McGovern went crazy," recalled Funk. "I lost the lead on No. 6, but I didn't panic. My caddie made a joke and I started playing better. I relaxed coming in."
In this case, Funk was buoyed by a par he made on the final hole yesterday that helped preserve his lead, and perhaps, his positive outlook. Struggling off the tee much of the back nine, Funk pushed his drive into the right rough on the 444-yard par-4.
But some burned-out grass gave Funk a decent lie, and he crunched a 4-wood. He nearly hit it too cleanly, but the swirling wind slowed the ball's flight and it landed 15 feet from the cup. His first putt ran three feet past the cup. He needed a par to keep the lead.
"The last thing I wanted was a three-foot tester coming back," Funk said. "It felt like 100 feet."
For much of yesterday's round, it didn't look as if anything would make Funk go into one. He nearly aced the 235-yard third hole, saved par with putts up to 12 feet on three other holes, hit his tee shot on the 165-yard 11th to within 18 inches and saved par on the par-4 12th by chipping from 70 feet to within a foot of the cup.
He also understood the opportunity he had lost.
"I had a chance to separate myself when I got to 14-under," Funk said. "If I could have gotten it to 15- or 16-under, it would have been nice. But regardless, it's going to be a shootout. It would have been a shootout even with the lead. You have to play the same. There's no conservative golfing tomorrow. You just have to go and play and fire it up."
Those now in contention were grateful that Funk came back to the field.
"If he had gotten it to 15- or 16-under, it would have been tough to catch him," said DiMarco, 29, whose best finish was a tie for third at the Deposit Guaranty in 1994 but who has struggled this year, missing the cut at five straight tournaments in one stretch. "It's nice to be in his rear-view mirror."
Said Appleby, who won his first PGA Tour event at last year's Honda Classic but has missed the cut in seven of his last 10 tournaments: "For a while this year, I wasn't letting myself score. Sometimes you can get in your own way."
Funk is hoping that doesn't happen to him today. The laser vision surgery he underwent on Tuesday afternoon has been so successful that Funk reported yesterday that he could see clearly for the first time. A course and tournament that has given him nothing but headaches had, until late in the third round, been complying nicely.
In some ways, it seems only fitting. The former University of Maryland golf coach has saved the Kemper Open from paying dearly for being Tigerless this week.
The crowds will be back today, rooting for a player who grew up in College Park. A victory would be the high point of his already rags-to-riches career.
Fred Funk 71--201
and selected followers
Stuart Appleby 69--202
Chris DiMarco 70--203
Tommy Tolles 66--204
Scott Hoch 68--205
Clark Dennis 70--205
Brad Fabel 70--205
Pub Date: 6/07/98