If I could have written this on Saturday night I undoubtedly would have more vivid memories of the day. But, I will try to recapture the excitement we felt walking toward the 16th green of the Stadium Course at The Players during the third round. That day Fred bounced back to shoot an unbelievable score fresh off the recovery of knee replacement surgery. Or, as caddy Mark Long described it, “He’s come out of hibernation just in time.”
This 53 year old former University of Maryland golf coach-turned-pro is one of the most beloved golfers on tour. His ability to remain a regular guy despite his 19 professional wins including the 2005 Players Championship is proof of his humility and strong faith. He is just a good guy who works hard. No other way to describe him.
The gallery was building as our long time friend approached the epicenter of the famous Stadium Course where holes 16, and 17 can be viewed simultaneously. The fans relaxed in the grass, or if fortunate enough to score a ticket to one of the air conditioned chalets, munched on sumptuous snacks and a Sawgrass Splash or an ice cold brew while waiting for the next group to come thru. The giant TV screens announced the golfer on each tee box and provided currents stats. It is the perfect place to watch The “almost major” Players unfold.
No.16 hole is a 523 yard par-5 that sits across the water from the famous island 17th green. Tom and I and many others Funk’s Punks in bright orange shirts escorted Fred as he walked the 16th fairway. You could hear the fans whispers, “Here comes Funk and his Punks”. The fans cheered as he eagled 16 taking back the 2 shots from bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15. However, lurking ahead was 17!
Undoubtedly the most famous hole in golf, the island green 17 is extremely intimidating with it’s ribbon of walkway to the green surrounded by water. Dreams have been shattered by pin placement near the front of the green on a bottom shelf. Fred managed a two-putt-par and it was now on to 18 with it’s entire left fairway hugging the water.
If you can hold it all together to 18 you must maintain your cool as this hole will test your skill and a stiff north westerly wind hitting you in the face will cause your knees to shake. The green is surrounded by a sandy bunker on the left and deep pots of grass bunkers on the front that can devour your chances of par in one bad bounce. Fred was fortunate to hit the green with his second shot as the ball raced 22 feet past the hole. But, he sunk the putt which had a left-to-right break for a birdie and a stupendous 6-under-par third round score. We high-fived one another as the goose bumps rose on my sun burned arms. “I love to watch that man!” I shouted. We all watched him climb up the leader board that day as high as 6th place, with 5 birdies and an eagle, a whopping 52 spots ahead of the tie for 58th he posted at the end of the second round.
Sunday round four was a comfortable weather day. Low humidity and temps in the high 70’s, ocean breezes and sunshine. But the course held no favor as the scores began to drop from the strong wind. Fred felt the pressure and did not have his best day. He finished with a 78 tied for 39th place. But, he stayed the course, as they say. He finished his round. He did not retreat.
It is said that the game of golf is a game of inches played mainly in the inches between our ears. Tiger could take a lesson from Fred. He inspires so many to work hard and to keep going. He has transformed his physical body by working out more. He has has reaped the benefit with longer drives and greater stamina. Here is a 53 year old man with a new knee who plays both PGA and Champions Tours and might I say…..very well. I am proud of Fred Funk for being a strong man who loves his family and is blessed with a God given gift that not only provides he, and others he helps, with a great life….it entertains and inspires others. Keep on going Fred. As one fan yelled out as we approacehed 16 green ….”You still got it”.