Now, it really is fun and games

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - A friendly game of pingpong turned Fred Funk from one of golf's obscure millionaires into one of the PGA Tour's most celebrated players.

It happened this summer, when Funk had a few friends from the neighborhood in this Jacksonville suburb over to his house. Among them was David Duval, who lives across the inlet from Funk and his wife, Sharon.

"We were all just having a great time and you'd hit shots and go, 'Yeahhhh' or 'Whoaaaaa,' " Funk recalled recently. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat if you react [in golf] like all other sports instead of it being taboo to do that?' "

With the help of a suddenly hot putter, a player whose claim to fame had been as one of the game's straightest hitters and hardest workers started fist-pumping and high-fiving his way across the country.

He reached a crescendo last month at the PGA Championship near Minneapolis, where Funk led the tournament for two rounds and wound up tied for fourth, his highest finish ever in a major.

"It was not something you can force; it just happened and grew as the week went on," said Funk, 46. "I went in with a real light heart and a conscious thing that I was going to have a fun time."

The support for the former Maryland golf coach was so overwhelming that it seemed to eclipse the cheers for the world's greatest player, Tiger Woods, when the two were paired for the final round at Hazeltine.

"I think they enjoyed seeing someone interact with them, and look like they were having a good time on the golf course, instead of not smiling all the time," said Funk, whose theatrics even had the normally robotic Woods laughing.

"I didn't react [just] because I was leading the PGA, because I was playing well. It got to where it became a frenzy. It also got to where I wanted to get on the green and I couldn't wait to give them something to yell about."

Though Funk eventually ran out of heroics and finished six strokes behind Rich Beem, the frenzy has followed him. The next week at the NEC Invitational outside Seattle, a group of shirtless fans spelled out "Fred" and "Funk" on their chests and backs.

Though it is doubtful fans in Ireland will have the same reaction to Funk during this week's American Express World Golf Championship, which starts tomorrow, his image has forever changed.

In demand

He is suddenly sought after, with interviews on Jim Rome's radio show and The Best Damn Sports Show Period and a swing segment scheduled for a coming article in Golf Digest.

Currently playing Taylor Made golf clubs, Funk also has been approached about some new endorsement deals. "We're just trying to get the right fit," said Gary Verbal of Access Sports and Entertainment, which represents Funk.

Who would have Funk it?

This recent hot streak, which started with a second-place finish at the B.C. Open in late July and included another second-place tie at the Buick Open the week before the PGA, has catapulted Funk into golf's elite.

Funk has already earned a career-high $1,977,578 and is 13th on the tour's money list. Finishing in the Top 20 - something he has done only once, in 1999 - would get Funk an invitation to all four of next year's majors.

At a time when most players his age are starting to wind down their PGA Tour careers and gear up for the Senior Tour, Funk apparently still has plenty of dreams to chase and more than enough fire in his gut.

Funk credits his late start - he didn't qualify for the tour until he was 32, after coaching seven years at Maryland, his alma mater - with keeping him fresh and his eight-year marriage to Sharon with keeping things in the right perspective.

"I've always had this goal to see how good I can get," said Funk, who has won five tour events and earned more than $10 million in his career. "I didn't anticipate this happening right now, but I've had the goal to be the best 47-year-old who ever played the tour or the best 48-year-old or best 49-year-old.

"I still have the desire to put the effort in, and I enjoy playing. I'm going to stay driven to do that. It's a personal thing. I want to beat these young kids in my way."

Sharon Funk, who met her future husband the week he won the 1992 Houston Open and started dating him a year later, recalled a conversation she had with former LPGA star Sandra Post two years ago in Canada.

Post was talking about what a great career Fred Funk had put together - had, as if most of the accomplishments were in the past.

"Fred had almost won the tournament [in 1999] and the next year he was kind of hurt," recalled Sharon Funk. "Sandra said, 'He's really had a great career. He's made a great run of it.' In the back of my mind, I wanted to say, 'Sandra, he's not even there yet. He's not peaked.'

"I truly have believed that, my whole time I have known Fred. I know the mental side of him and where he was letting himself down. A lot of it was what he wasn't doing in the last month. ... This may be part of the peak, his climb to the top."

In the past, Funk has had a tendency to get down on himself. Not blessed with the most physical talent, Funk, 5 feet 8, 165 pounds, has played his best when his putter is working. Which putter Funk is using - and which putting style - is often the question.

Inconsistent putting

Over the years, Funk has tried just about every putter from a Bullseye to a long-shafted "belly," with every grip between conventional and claw. Just last year, Funk decided to use the claw - or overlap - grip in the middle of a tournament.

After shooting a 73 in the first round of the Buick Open, Funk was 1-over par through the first seven holes Friday and still struggling to make a putt. He went to the claw and made eight birdies on the last 11 holes to shoot 63.

"I thought I was cured," recalled Funk. "The next day I had three three-putts and a four-putt using the claw. I went to a conventional the last day and shot [65]."

That inconsistency is why Funk keeps more than 150 putters stored in his house and why, after relying on his own instincts around the greens, he finally went to see a sports psychologist who specializes in working with the short game.

Dr. David Belkin, who trained under famed golf guru Bob Rotella at the University of Virginia, said yesterday that Funk was allowing his mechanics to get in the way of his feel.

"He's always been an extremely talented putter, but he couldn't access it when he needed it," said Belkin. "I knew I had him right before the Buick when he said to me, 'I've got to go practice being unconscious.' "

"He helped me with my routine," said Funk. "What we were really trying to do is [have the putting] become more like the rest of my game, become more reactive when I'm playing well instead of trying to be so exact with my putting."

The results have been remarkable.

"It is taking the anxiety out of my putting," said Funk.

And it has put the fun back in his game, though that isn't the only reason for Funk's newfound approach. Shortly before he was to leave for this year's Buick Open, Funk got a disturbing telephone call.

Helping his brother

It was from the roommate of his older brother. Bernie Funk had moved to the Jacksonville area two years ago after a couple of businesses in Maryland had failed. An alcoholic, the older Funk had become severely depressed.

"He didn't care about life, didn't care about himself, didn't think anyone loved him ... [but came to realize] his family has unconditional love for him," recalled Fred Funk, the youngest of four siblings.

"I'll do anything I can to help him, and, fortunately, I have the means to help him. That has meant a lot to me that he's accepted that help. I truly feel like I've gotten a brother back that I never had."

Bernie Funk entered a rehabilitation program here and is now working at one of the local resorts.

"He truly lightened my heart," Fred Funk said of his brother, who has become a frequent visitor after years of estrangement. "The positive attitude that he decided to take changed my whole outlook, which carried over to Minnesota."

That his personal situation became public took the elder Funk by surprise.

"I don't know what the right word is. It caught me off-guard," said Bernie Funk, 57, sitting in the sunroom of his brother's house. "He and I and Sharon had to talk about it before I was comfortable with it.

"It's given me a certain amount of strength and self-confidence in myself again. It's a terrible situation to be in. Fortunately, I have a brother like Fred. To become part of the family again, that's a great triumph just in itself."

Sharon Funk, who played an active role in her brother-in-law's coming to grips with his problems, said what transpired before, during and after the PGA Championship was a life-altering experience.

"It wasn't about the golf, it was about life kind of blossoming for all of us," said Sharon Funk, tears streaming down her face.

Sharon Funk has always played a significant role in her husband's career. She has done everything from making travel plans to carrying his golf bag. She is currently home-schooling their 7-year-old son, Taylor, so that the family, which now includes 2-year-old daughter Perri, can travel together to tournaments.

Until recently, she was her husband's sports psychologist as well.

"She's really involved in the mental aspect of it, not get down on myself, she's really been harping on the rounds when I'm really lighthearted and have a good time," said Funk, who also has another son, Eric, 11, from a previous marriage. "She says, 'That's the way you should play.' "

One night, playing pingpong with some friends, Fred Funk began to realize that himself.

The frenzy, and the fun, has yet to stop.

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