LINKS PLAYERS MAGAZINE, 2013 ANNUAL EDITION

BUILDING A LEGACY

By Fred Funk

It’s one of the standard lines you’ll hear about me. Before I starting playing on the PGA Tour, I was a college golf coach.

I’m not sure if it’s meant to warm your heart to me—something along the lines of “he gave so much time to those kids, you know he must be a good guy”—but here’s the truth: I wasn’t a very good coach. For one, I was just too easy.

I had played at the University of Maryland, and after I got done there, I headed down to Florida to play the Space Coast mini-tour. Big dreams.

But I’d gone broke in Florida, and I had come back to Maryland belly-up, looking for any job I could get. I was cleaning out this burned-out warehouse and painting the office building on this truck depot. I knew that wasn’t going to last long!

Fortunately, about that time, my coach at Maryland was promoted to the assistant athletic director’s position and he called me. “You want my job?” he asked.

“Absolutely!” I told him. “I’ll take it.”

I think I was the youngest coach in NCAA Division I history up to that point, just a year out of college. And the trouble was that I was coaching some of my own teammates from the years before. Try establishing discipline from that! No chance. Pretty much any order I tried to institute just didn’t work. So I said, “All right, the heck with it. I’ll just put together a good schedule and give these guys an opportunity to play well on their own merit. If they play well, great. If they don’t, that’s their own problem.”

So I ended up with a lot of time to work on my own game. And when I kept qualifying for U.S. Opens and PGA Championships as a club pro, I started to realize that I was a little better than I thought. I kept working on it, seeing how good I could get, and hoping it was good enough to make the Tour.

I worked hard—really hard. I hit a lot of balls and worked out and did everything I needed to do to improve. I also played a lot of tournaments, which was a big deal. You have to learn how to compete. In the end, I think I just outworked a lot of people. There were guys that had more talent than I did who never made it. I’d have to say they didn’t work at it like I did, and that pushed me over the top.

But I also had to wait out an injury. When you work that hard at something as an athlete, you put wear and tear on your body. I won the PGA Assistants’ Championship in 1984, and that got me into a series of tournaments where I kept playing well, right into 1985 and ’86. In 1986, though, just when it looked like I was on the brink of making it onto the PGA Tour, I tore my rotator cuff. I didn’t have it operated on at the time, but it set me back two years, and it wasn’t until 1989 that I made the Tour.

That first season, I was actually still hurting, but it was a great year for gaining the experience you need to make it out there. I learned how to play on the road and adjust my game for different conditions. I didn’t play well, and I had to go back to Q-School one more time, but that first season gave me a foundation that helped me in the years to come.

Those years to come are now years gone by. Quite a few of them, actually—right through an enjoyable PGA Tour career and into my current play on the Champions Tour.

With a big look back, I can easily identify golf’s highlights for me. I call my win at the 2005 PLAYERS Championship my signature win. By far, winning at Sawgrass was my biggest accomplishment, because the course is so demanding and the field is so strong. It has all the pressure of a major, and coming down the stretch on that golf course there is just so little margin for error. And with three guys—Tom Lehman, Luke Donald, and Scott Verplank—sitting just a shot behind, I had to play my best golf.

That year also marked the last of a three-year run when I played on the Presidents and Ryder Cups teams. Those were great experiences as well.

But my most recent big memory came at the U.S. Senior Open in 2009. We played at Crooked Stick, and my game showed up so strong that week, I surprised even myself. At 20-under par by the time we ended, I won by six shots. It was my big chance at getting my name on a USGA trophy, and I never imagined I would be able to breathe so easy while doing it. I came close again in 2012 but finished in a tie for second behind Roger Chapman. That just proves you may only get one opportunity to win a USGA event. I’m glad I got my chance at Crooked Stick!

Actually, I’m glad that I’m still getting those chances. The 2012 season was a good one for me, with two wins, but I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to compete again. I had a knee replacement in 2009, and I figured I’d at least be able to make a go of it after that, even if my knee was subject to weakness and dysfunction.

But in 2011, I tore a ligament in my thumb and my hand was in a cast for six months. I didn’t know where that was going to leave me, because the thumb is such a big deal in the golf swing. It supports the weight of the driver at the top of the swing.

The cast came off in January 2012, just ahead of the season. I certainly wasn’t going to be ready right away! But with some work, I got used to it, built my confidence that the thumb would hold up, and my game started getting back to where I was used to seeing it—maybe even better. I’d been fighting injury since 2007, and that was not a fun ride, but now my health is as good as it has been in a long time, so I’m pretty excited about what may lie ahead.

That’s actually kind of unusual for a guy my age. I’ll turn 57 in the middle of the 2013 season, and for a long time guys pretty much figured there was a five-year competitive window to really make your mark on the Champions Tour. That’s changed a bit now because fitness is so much more a part of the game and some guys, myself included, were able to stay out on the PGA Tour with the young guys a bit longer.

The truth is that while I know that I’m on the back end of my career, I’m probably playing the best golf of my career and I’m still super passionate about the game. In fact, I still feel like there’s a lot to learn. I’ve changed my swing slightly to something better, and as that moves from conscious thought to something automatic, it’s just going to be that much better. I feel like I have a lot to improve in my short game. And believe it or not, I’m still working on my mental game. We old guys are supposed to have that part figured out, but I’m still learning there too.

Part of that has to do with my faith. Let me tell you that story.

Before I had my knee replaced in 2009, I was kind of stringing it along by having it drained regularly. Here’s a non-golf stat for you: I had my knee drained 18 times in 2008. But the needle finally got me and I developed a staph infection. I’d heard of these and I knew it was serious, but I didn’t realize the severity of it until the doctor said, “This could kill you, but we’ll take your leg off before it does.”

I thought he was kidding. I kind of laughed and said, “Wow, this is a big deal.”

He got more serious. “This is bigger than a big deal. This is dangerous stuff.”

So I was sicker than a dog for a while, laid up with not much to do. I’d always had a cursory belief in God, though we didn’t go to church much when I was a kid, but I’d never read the Bible. I saw this book, Read the Bible in 90 Days, so I thought maybe this would be a good time to commit to reading it, since I had so much time on my hands.

In the end, I read 12 pages a day for 90 days and finished the whole Bible. But along the way, I started to wonder. There I was in the Old Testament, and I kept reading some eye-opening stuff about God. I thought, Man, if you piss God off, he’s really going to come back at you! But I also found myself getting bogged down in some of the genealogical lists and stuff, so I gave Larry Moody a call. Larry has been the chaplain on the PGA Tour for a long time, and I knew he could help me out.

I asked him, “Uh, Larry, when does Jesus show up?”

When I told him I was only about 12 days into the Old Testament, he laughed and said, “You’ve got a long way to go, pal.”

Sure enough, it was maybe Day 66 or something into the 90 days before I made it to the gospels and started reading about Jesus. But I stuck with it and when I got there it was so refreshing. I finally had a true sense of who Jesus was.

Now let me clarify something, because I know this is important for some people. I cannot tell you when I was “saved.” Some people can do this. They can say that there was a time and a place. That’s not the way it worked for me. It has been a slow progression.

My family didn’t go to church except maybe once or twice a year when I was growing up. And since I started working at the golf course when I was a young teenager, my church days would have been spent on the job anyway. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe in the Lord, because we did. But the idea of intentionally following him just wasn’t part of our lives.

In a way I guess you could say that my life has paralleled my golf career. Ups and downs, successes and trials. There’s always a challenge. But if you stick with golf, you’ll usually get to where you want to go. And if you stick with God, he’s going to keep showing you more and more of himself. The love I have for the Lord is growing all the time, and so is my reliance on him. Just because you give your life to the Lord, it doesn’t mean everything is going to be a bowl of cherries. You need to keep your faith and trust that he is leading you.

I don’t do this alone. I have been blessed to rely on some guys on tour who have really influenced me—Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer, Scott Simpson, Larry Mize. My wife Sharon is incredibly strong. She’s always working on me to give things up to the Lord. You know, I don’t always do it, because it’s not easy to do. But it sure feels good when you do it—and it really relieves a lot of stress, too!

So I give it up. I remember that God’s aware of what’s happening out there. Just go and play. Hit the shots. See what happens. And accept it.

I love it when it all comes together like that, because that helps me get to where I most want to go, which is to play this game more and more for other people. That’s another way that I don’t play the game alone.

To be honest, the influence we have as tour players baffles me at times. If you had told me before I started playing on the Tour that I could have a positive impact on a lot of people and do good things because of my platform as a successful tour player, I wouldn’t have known what to make of that. It’s pretty humbling, and yet so rewarding all at the same time. What I’ve come to at this point in my career is that I want to put myself into position to give back more than anything else I accomplish.

In the beginning, when I was coaching college golf, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work for those other guys, for my players. So I started going after success for myself. Now, on the other end of the journey God has walked me through, I’m in a whole different place. He’s showing me how to take what I’ve gained and give it to others. Turns out he had the end in mind all along. He knew at the start that when I got to this point, I wouldn’t be looking back with regrets or disillusionment. Rather, I just want to be somebody who people can look at and say, “Wow, that guy has come a long way. He’s had a great career even though he doesn’t hit the ball that far. He’s not a superstar like some of these guys are, but he’s a great guy and he loves the game and he loves people.”

If people see that in me, then I know that what they are really seeing is the work of God.

COPYRIGHT 2013 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Fred Funk

    8 PGA Tour wins: 1992 Shell Houston Open, 1995 Buick Challenge, 1995 Ideon Classic, 1996 B.C. Open, 1998 Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, 2004 Southern Farm Bureau Classic, 2005 THE PLAYERS Championship, 2007 Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera Maya-Cancun

    9 Champions Tour wins (three majors): 2006 AT&T Championship, 2007 Turtle Bay Championship, 2008 MasterCard Championship at Hualalai, 2008 JELD-WEN Tradition, 2009 U.S. Senior Open Championship, 2010 JELD-WEN Tradition, 2012 Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn, 2012 Insperity Championship, 2014 Big Cedar Lodge Legends of Golf.