Fred Funk: Pushing With All of His Might

Fred Funk: Pushing With All of His Might

We want the Funk! Give us the Funk!” No, you’re not at a George Clinton concert. That’s the sound of a raucous PGA Tour gallery when undersized underdog Fred Funk is in the field.

How did Fred Funk, a 49-year-old who is unable to pound the requisite long drives that make fans delirious, become one of the most popular players on Tour? Passion. In a sport where the top players often resemble automatons programmed solely to hit golf balls (which admittedly isn’t bad work if you can get it), Funk plays with unbridled emotion. And the fans love it.

We caught up with Grandmaster Funk to ask him what it’s like to get more cheers than Tiger, what his future holds and whether he really is having that much fun out there.

With your win at the Players Championship in March, you’re now exempt on the PGA Tour through 2010, when you’ll be 54 years old. Can you see yourself competing on the big tour in two or three years? I have no idea. My goal is to make the Ryder Cup team next year. After that, who knows? I really see myself making an eventual full-time switch to the Champions Tour, because I feel like I can really help their tour a lot. They need guys like me and Jay [Haas] and Peter [Jacobsen]. Guys with name recognition, but more importantly, guys who can get out there and excite the crowds. When I’m playing well, that’s what I do best. I really enjoy acknowledging the crowds. And I feed off it.

A lot of pros hide that emotion and keep the crowd at arm’s length. Why are you different? The problem with golf is that we’re all told to be flat-liners. You don’t want to get too high when you’re playing well, and you definitely don’t want to get too low. This is what we’re taught by all these psychologists. It’s a game where you try to keep your emotions in check. But I make a conscious effort to really enjoy my good shots, which is the opposite of current logic. Instead of expecting to hit good shots, I want to really enjoy them when I do. And instead of ignoring bad shots, I expect to hit them, and when I do, I just say to hell with them. On to the next shot.

When did you come up with that theory? At Hazeltine in ’02 [at the PGA Championship]. I remember playing with Tiger on Sunday, walking up 11, and hoping we had a 36-hole day because I was having so much fun. I didn’t want it to end. That had never happened to me before. It’s usually with Sunday pressure you can’t wait to get to the house. But I couldn’t wait to get to the next shot. And I really enjoyed the atmosphere of being with Tiger. You know, he brings his own circus, everybody following him, cheering for him. Well, they were cheering for me. He even said to me, “I’ve never had the guy I’m playing with get more cheers than me. This is pretty cool.” And that was even more cool to hear him say it was cool. I can’t say Tiger and I are close friends, because I don’t hang around with him, but he’s a great guy. And I would like to get to know him more.

One of your Funkiest moments came at that PGA. Tiger chipped in for a big par save and gave the crowd his signature fist pump. You then sunk a par putt and followed it with your own mock fist pump celebration. Did Tiger take offense to that? No, not at all. He thought I was nuts. He laughed about it and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Tiger, I was going to do this yesterday, but I didn’t time it right.” So the next day, he starts messing up the first hole, hits it right, then chunks it, then chips in. That figures, he chips in. But now I’m thinking, this is perfect, I’ve got this eight-footer. I’ve got to make this thing, and then I can do it. Because he was all pumped up already. And I tell you, that was one of the most pressure putts I’ve ever had, because I knew I was going to do it if I made the putt. So I had this whole thing planned out, and I’m thinking, “I better not miss this.”

Is golf a business to you, or is it more a hobby that pays extremely well? It’s a job. But when you’re playing well, it feels more like a hobby. When you’re not playing well, it’s a real job. When you’re spending a lot of money on travel and things like that and you feel like you’re not getting your just rewards for the work you put in, then you feel like you’re getting run over by a freight train. That’s no fun. You can get beat up out here pretty bad.

But when you are playing well, you must pinch yourself each morning to make sure you’re not dreaming. Not every morning. I’m 49 years old, and I bruise easy. No, seriously, I really do appreciate where I’ve come from and what I’ve done. And to think that I’ve had this much success out here at this age and stage of my career is baffling at times. Everything points in the direction that I should not be doing what I’m doing. The competition has gotten stronger, and the golf courses are getting longer. On top of that, I haven’t been able to take advantage of the newest golf ball technology. I don’t hit it hard enough.

What’s your swing speed? I’m anywhere from 106 to 113 mph Depends on what machine I’m measured on. Ball speed I’m about 156 mph. During this year’s U.S. Open, they had a launch monitor out on the second hole at Pinehurst during the practice rounds, and I had a 165 mph ball speed. I’ve never had that much. So I don’t know what was going on.

You weren’t swinging out of your shoes? Well, I’m always trying to swing out of my shoes. That just never translated into more ball speed.

Do you think championship setups are getting out of control in terms of length? These young guys are hitting the ball a mile. So they need to do something. But instead of changing the design of the hole, they just add length. New tees. To me that’s just dumb. Ironically, our best golf courses are some of our shorter ones. Westchester, Harbour Town. You know, shotmakers’ golf courses. Those are the ones I can excel on. And I usually like golf courses like that, where if you break 70, you get rewarded. You don’t have to shoot 63 or 64. You go out there and shoot 68 or 69 and you feel like you’ve picked up some ground.

Pinehurst fit that definition at the U.S. Open this year, didn’t it? Oh, man, that was tough. I mean, if you broke 70 there, you really picked up ground. I shot 70 the last day and moved up 30 spots. That’s an extreme example of toughness though.

Tell us about your win at the 2005 Players Championship at Sawgrass. That was the defining moment in my career. Against the strongest field we have all year, no question, including the majors. And it’s on a really tough golf course. I played 32 holes [on Monday], under some really extreme conditions. Guys had to put up with that wind all day, and deal with the rough. I live there, and if you have a day like that, you don’t go out and play. You’re not even going to hit balls in it. So it felt really good to come out on top.

Did it mean more to win at home? When you have a group of people really rooting for you and behind you all the way like my loyal Funk’s Punks were at the Players, it’s a lot of fun. Can you imagine if Jason Gore was winning coming down 18 at the U.S. Open, how wild that place would have been? I didn’t make it easy for me or easy for them to watch, you know, with a couple three putts and missing all kinds of shots down the stretch. But I really wanted to give them something to cheer about. And I got it done. My family and all my hometown people were watching. So that was cool. What a special feeling.

Your putt to win at 18 wasn’t exactly a gimme, was it? Oh, no. They measured it at five feet. But it looked a lot longer than that.

Are you really having as much fun as it looks? I try to. But I also really push myself. In one way I pinch myself for what I’ve done, but I still expect a lot of myself. It’s kind of a catch-22.

You mean you’re grinding? Yeah, I’m definitely grinding. I’ve got to work hard out there. Because I don’t hit the ball that far. And today’s game, like every other sport, has become a power and speed game. Guys are just better and better athletes. On top of that, we have these ridiculous technologies that allow these guys to really take advantage of their athleticism. I tell you, I can’t imagine how fun this game would be if I could hit the ball 30 or 40 yards farther. You wouldn’t get me off a golf course. I would play all day every day and night. You see these guys like Hank Kuehne and Tiger Woods and they can just overpower any golf course. And it would just be so fun to hit a golf ball that hard and watch it fly. I could play a hole any way I wanted. Super conservative or really aggressive. I think that if a lot of guys had to play the golf courses we play from where I’m playing it from with my second shots into the green, and have the success that I’ve had out here, they’d appreciate me even more.

It’s surprising that equipment companies haven’t been able to match a ball or create a ball that fits your swing speed. You don’t exactly swing like an old grandma. No, it’s not slow. But what happened was, this generation of golf balls–the original Pro V1 and the original HX ball from Callaway–changed things. There were three guys over 300 [yards] and 13 guys over 290 the year before the new balls came out. The next year, it was 13 guys over 300 and 65 guys over 290. The gains were just unheard of. And you kept hearing it up and down the range from all these guys with high swing speeds. And I don’t even know what the threshold is. Maybe it’s 115 mph-plus. They were saying, “Yeah, I got this new ball and I picked up 15 yards in the air,” or “I picked up 20 yards in the air.” And I’m going, “All they did was switch balls?” So I got this ball, and I picked up like two yards.

Why didn’t you see those gains? To get the true benefit of these golf balls, you need to have a certain ball speed. Mine is somewhere under 160 mph. And you have guys like Tiger who are extreme examples at 180 mph. But you get into the 165 to 170 range, and these balls just don’t come down. I mean, I’ve had ideal numbers according to the computer, but I don’t get those benefits. I’m maxed out.

You seem to be doing pretty well with what you got. I’m doing okay, but it was upsetting that nobody made a change to anything but the golf ball when these things came out. And they were getting this huge gain, and I’m going, “Whoa, where’s my gain?” I feel like I’m treading water with this technology. I just can’t get it out there. Of course, when I complain about distance to my peers, you know, there’s no sympathy at all. They say, “What are you crying about? You just won the Players.”

Did you always want to be a pro golfer? No, no, no. I didn’t. I played junior golf, but I was doing all the other sports, too. I was a good boxer. I did that for 8 years, until I was 16. But I just never got big enough. Back then, the Junior Golden Gloves [16 and under] was age and weight and then Golden Gloves was just weight. So I said, no, that’s it, I’m out. I don’t want to fight a Marine Corps guy who wants to kill me and really knows how. So I got out of that. But I didn’t really get involved with golf until my late teens. And as far as being good enough, I was just an okay college player. Nothing great. I went broke on mini-tour in ’81 after I got out of college. That was when I thought, “Naw, I don’t want to do this.” So I went home to Maryland, and my coach had been promoted and offered me a job as the coach, and I took it. That was the end of ’81, early ’82.

Did coaching allow you to play in more tournaments? When we weren’t in season, I was the assistant pro at the university course. And that allowed me to play in a lot of sectional events. That’s when I started to really get good. And I think what really happened was, we played the white tees in most events. I think those years really helped me. Playing the white tees, I got used to shooting really low numbers — 63, 64 was what you should shoot from those tees. And I did. And then when we went to the back tees, I still expected to shoot those numbers, and I had a comfort level of being way under par. A lot of times, guys get that magic number of even par and then get to one or two under and think, “Oh, man, I’m under par,” and they panic, instead of thinking, “Okay, I’m two under, let’s go lower.'”

You took some flak last year for deciding to skip the British Open. Do you still think that was the right decision? My number one goal was to make the Ryder Cup team. So I wanted to do everything I could do to maximize my opportunity to do that. Milwaukee’s a great course for me, which is the week after the British. And I was told that Royal Troon was not great for me. But then with the weather they had over there last year, you know, it was semi-calm and dry, I had a bunch of my friends come back and say, “Man, you should have gone, that course was perfect for you.” And I said, “Well, nobody told me that before.” And I’m watching it on TV, and I’m saying, “Why didn’t I go?” So in hindsight, I wish I’d went. Because I know I would’ve enjoyed it. That said, I did make the Ryder Cup team.

Where is the game today compared to when you first came out on Tour? This is a great era. I hope the kids today realize how good they have it. And Tiger’s a big reason we have these purses we have. More than that though, he’s made the game cool. He’s the guy that turned golf into a sport instead of some sort of nerdy thing. It was just never looked at as something that kids wanted to do. But Tiger made it cool to play golf. No one’s ever done that before. You know, Arnie put it on the map, but it was still kind of a rich man’s sport. And then it kind of treaded water there for a long, long time. But then Tiger came out and turned golf on its head. He’s not only the most famous golfer, he’s the most recognized athlete in the world. He’s Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan rolled into one.

30 Second Bio

Fred Funk
Age: 49
Height: 5’8″
Weight: 165 lbs

  • Joined the PGA Tour in 1989 at age 32
  • 7 career wins, including the 2005 Players Championship
  • $2,536,153 in 2005 earnings, eighth on the PGA Tour money list
  • Member of 2003 and 2005 (upcoming) U.S. Presidents Cup and 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup teams
  • Seven career Driving Accuracy titles in 15 full years on Tour, including his third-straight in 2004
  • Entered the 2004 Tour Championship .10 percent ahead of Scott Verplank in Driving Accuracy and hit one more fairway than Verplank during the week to capture the title at 77.23 to 77.13 percent.
  • Loves water and snow skiing
  • One of the first Tour players to have LASIK eye surgery for 20/20 vision

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