A Slam Funk: The Best U.S. Senior Open in a Decade

Tuesday August 4th, 2009
Fred Funk's 20-under total was the best ever in a Senior Open by three strokes (Hale Irwin, 2000).
Mike Ehrmann/SI

The biggest roar last Thursday at Crooked Stick Golf Club, outside Indianapolis, was reserved for Tom Watson. Reinvigorated and rediscovered after his gallant run at the British Open, Watson was given a hero's welcome simply for walking from the putting green to the 1st tee to kick off his U.S. Senior Open. But the fans also went wild when the normally calm and collected Tim Jackson, an amateur who led the tournament for two rounds to become the crowd favorite, holed a stupid-long par-saving putt at the 11th hole on Sunday and took a Hale-Irwin-at-Medinah victory lap around the green. Then again, it was pretty loud when Greg Norman sank an eagle putt on Saturday to take the lead and make everyone think that this could be the week he would finally hold on for his first senior trophy.

Yet how could any of the above match the cheers for Fred Funk on the 72nd hole when he made a birdie to wrap up a runaway victory? Funk didn't need the birdie, but it was a fitting conclusion to a seven-under-par 65 that left him 20 under for the week, six strokes better than runner-up Joey Sindelar. Attention, shoppers: Twenty under is the lowest subpar total — by three strokes — ever shot in a U.S. Golf Association championship anytime, anywhere, by anyone, including Tiger Woods.

Yes, this Senior Open was filled with roars. You need big crowds for that, and they had them in Indy. The weekend galleries were estimated at more than 25,000 each day, and they were enthusiastic. Crooked Stick had the same feel and electricity as it did when the PGA Tour last visited, in 1991, for the PGA Championship that gave birth to the legend of John Daly.

Here is the template of success for senior golf: marquee names such as Norman, Watson and, yes, a popular everyman like Funk; a Cinderella story like the 50-year-old Jackson, a real estate developer and lifelong amateur from Germantown, Tenn., whose opening rounds of 66 and 67 were the two lowest scores ever shot by an amateur in any U.S. Open — men's, women's or senior; and lots and lots of spectators. This Senior Open was, without a doubt, the Champions tour's finest hour in years. The only thing missing in Indianapolis was a dramatic Sunday, but Funk's strong finish (seven birdies, no bogeys) and record-setting play made up for it.

"The biggest thing is getting my name on that trophy with all the great names on there and being part of that history," said the 53-year-old Funk, who at first rated his win on a par with his victory at the 2005 Players Championship but then changed his mind, saying, "This might be a notch higher because it's a national championship. This is big."

He was on the 18th green on Sunday with a five-shot lead when Mark Long, his caddie, reminded Funk just how big: As Senior Open champ he punched his ticket to the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Says Long, "I told him, 'You'd better rent that house at Pebble tomorrow. They go pretty quick out there.' Fred laughed and said, 'That's right!' "

Funk's performance was all the more remarkable considering his physical condition. Funk has been playing this year with a bum right knee and a banged-up left shoulder. He had knee surgery last year, then contracted a staph infection that complicated his recovery. He walked with only a slight limp at Crooked Stick thanks to a knee brace called the Unloader, which he picked up a few weeks ago and says was the key to his good play. Says Long, "It really transformed his game. He can swing like there's nothing wrong with his knee. He couldn't do that before."

Nevertheless, there is knee replacement surgery in Funk's future. "I would've thought it would be at the end of this year," Long says, "but now that he's got this brace, he might be able to milk it for another year."

Funk says the shoulder injury, a torn labrum that also will require surgery, is the direct result of favoring his bad knee while playing golf and is the reason he no longer takes a practice swing before shots. Doctors told Funk he was O.K. to play with the shoulder as long as he could. "How long is that going to last?" asks Long. "We don't know."

Funk's ability to play with pain took some of the attention away from the Tom Watson Appreciation Tour. Watson, 60 next month and playing in his third major in as many weeks, was never a factor in Indianapolis, finishing 43rd, 22 shots behind Funk, possibly because Watson was, literally, a pale imitation of himself. He became ill on his trip home from Scotland. "Never eat Chinese food over there," said Watson, who was as white as a sheet two days before the Senior Open. He regained some color the next day, but when asked if his digestive tract felt better, he said, "No. It's like a screen door on a submarine." Thanks for sharing.

Even two weeks later, Watson's epic run at Turnberry remained a hot topic as fellow pros shared where-were-you-when-Tom-finished stories. Loren Roberts, who tied with Norman for fourth in Indianapolis, said he and his wife cried following Watson's playoff loss. Dan Forsman, 13th at Crooked Stick, said he stayed glued to the tube at home in Provo, Utah, until it was time to go to church. Once there he received text updates from his son, who informed him that Watson's shot at 18 went over the green. "I was going, 'Noooo!' " Forsman said. "I watched a number of guys go long who couldn't get up and down from there."

Isn't texting in church against the rules? "Yeah, they frown on that, as you can imagine," Forsman said. "But for those of us who follow this game religiously, Tom's week was a spiritual experience."

Last week's Senior Open at Crooked Stick was divine too.

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