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Stroke back, Funk adds substance to sentiment

The Baltimore Sun

BETHESDA -- Fred Funk came back this week to the first course he ever played in a PGA Tour event as a local favorite and, at age 51, a sentimental choice to win the inaugural AT&T; National.

Yesterday, Funk took on another role at Congressional Country Club - that of legitimate contender.

With an opening round of 3-under-par 67, the former University of Maryland golf coach who has become the Peter Pan of the PGA Tour is one stroke behind five players: Vijay Singh, former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, Stuart Appleby of Australia, Joe Ogilvie and K.J. Choi of South Korea.

Aside from Funk, six others were at 67, including former U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin, former PGA champion Rich Beem and current NCAA champion Jamie Lovemark. Tournament host Tiger Woods three-putted four times to shoot 3-over-par 73. Phil Mickelson finished at 4-over-par 74.

"I'm going to have to figure something out for tomorrow because evidently what I'm doing is not even close to being right," said Woods, who had seven bogeys, four on the last seven holes, and hit a spectator in the face with his tee shot on the par-4 18th. "I've got to get back in this tournament [today] to give myself a chance come Sunday."

While Congressional still has yet to provide any positive memories for Woods, it holds a special place in Funk's heart. It was at Congressional "in 1981 or 1982" that Funk, coaching in College Park at the time, played in the Kemper Open.

"I made $900," Funk recalled.

Pardon Funk for being a little fuzzy with the memory - it was 1982 and he earned $947 - but he has played a lot of golf since. As he showed yesterday, and earlier this year in winning on both the PGA and Champions tours, Funk still has a lot left.

"If I can get myself in contention and stay in contention and come down to these finishing holes on Sunday, that would be fantastic," said Funk, who passed on the U.S. Senior Open to play in this tournament. "There's a long way to go, but I've always dreamed of winning when we were at Avenel and blew one really good chance. Here, this finishing hole, it's a magical place."

There's a bit of smoke and mirrors to what Funk has done in his 19 years on the PGA Tour.

As his productive career that had included five wins seemed to be winding down, Funk became the oldest player to make a U.S. Ryder Cup team on his own merit, at 48, in 2004. A few months later, in 2005, Funk became the oldest winner of The Players Championship.

This year, despite back problems, Funk won a Champions Tour event in Hawaii and a PGA Tour event in Mexico, becoming only the second player to do that in one season. He was in contention again a few weeks ago at the Travelers Championship outside Hartford, Conn., finishing fifth.

"The better anybody plays out here that's coming from the Champions Tour validates how good those guys are out there," Funk said. "It just shows that age doesn't make that much difference if you're healthy and motivated and want to put the time in."

What has also helped Funk over the past few months has been a new mental approach to the game. Since last fall, Funk has been using a program developed by Lanny Bassham, who won a gold medal in rifle shooting at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and during the past 30 years has advised everyone from Miss America candidates to FBI agents on their mental approach to competition.

"Fred's a guy who's always looking to improve," Bassham said yesterday from Dallas. "He wanted a clearer mental game. He doesn't hold onto his errors as long as he used to. He needs to be careful not to be trading something that's good with something that's new."

Funk used Bassham's program during his round yesterday when he was having trouble making solid contact with his shots off the tee. It certainly showed when, after making bogey on the par-4 11th hole, Funk watched his 9-iron approach from 139 yards on the par-4 12th bounce in for an eagle.

"I was cautious with how I was hitting it. I wasn't sure I could hit the fairway, let alone hit it solid," said Funk, who also made birdies on the par-5 16th and par-4 18th. "My whole focus was to try not to get ahead of myself and try to just do the best I can on every shot I had."

With a few more flushed tee shots, and a few more putts like those he made coming in, Funk could finally celebrate his first victory in the area since his days as the most dominant player of the Mid-Atlantic PGA and his first win at a place where, as a kid, "they'd check my ID and kick me out at the gate."

Now he's welcomed back as a local favorite and a sentimental choice to win. Funk and his wife were part of a small group of PGA Tour players and their families who were invited to the White House to watch the Fourth of July fireworks.

Several fans following Funk yesterday wore Maryland hats and shirts.

"I think people can identify with me," Funk said. "I don't hit it that far. They see some of these guys and say, and I wonder, 'How the heck did they do that?' I wish I could figure it out. All I hear is you play good for the old guys, play good for the little guys, play good for the short hitters. It's fun to have that attention."

don.markus@baltsun.com

If you go

Schedule

Today: Play begins at 7 a.m.

Tomorrow-Sunday: Play begins at 8 a.m.

Tickets

Daily passes: Today: $20 per day; tomorrow-Sunday: $25 per day

Weekly badge: $65

Daily youth ticket: Ages 13-17, $10 per day (available at gate only); ages 12 and younger are admitted free at gate when accompanied by a ticket-holding adult (limit two children per adult).

Parking: Included with the price of admission.

Online

For AT&T; National second-round updates and photos, go to baltimoresun.com/golf

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