Rod Funseth is always showing up on leader boards at important events. The problem is that he never stays
June 11, 1978

As play in the U.S. Open unfolds in Denver next week, do not be surprised if sooner or later (probably sooner) you see the name Funseth on the leader board, along with the likes of Nicklaus, Player, Watson and Green. Rod Funseth has been up there before, a leader in major championships a remarkable number of times for a man who in 17 years on the tour has won only twice and has never been among the top 20 money-winners in any year.

Take the most recent Masters—which in fact Funseth almost did. His name first appeared around noon on Friday, the second day of the tournament. He had started the morning at one over par, five shots out of first place, but suddenly he began making birdies all over Augusta. He came home with a 66, and when all the scores were in he was the Masters co-leader after 36 holes, tied with Lee Trevino. Funseth had been on top before at the Masters. In 1977 he shared the 36-hole lead with Tom Watson. Watson, of course, went on to win, so speculation among the superstitious at Augusta on Friday evening was that perhaps Trevino might win this year, that being tied with Funseth was some sort of omen. No one thought for a moment that Funseth would win—nor did he, though he hung in till the very end.

A part of Funseth's problem—maybe the biggest part—seems to be that he himself never thinks he can win. The year before, when he and Watson were tied, he had startled everyone in the Augusta press room by flatly stating that he would not win, could not win, that his game could not hold up. "Besides," he said, "they probably don't have a green jacket to fit me."

Remarks like that make Sandi Funseth squirm; they have tortured her for more than a decade. Sandi is a superbly confident person; years ago she was a national water-ski champion. It has taken her a good many of her 13 years of marriage to Funseth to adjust to what she openly refers to as her husband's negative attitude. "In my family we were all positive thinkers," she says. "I can't tell you how many players have told me how good Rod could be if he only stopped thinking negatively."

Funseth's lengthy appearance on the 1978 Masters leader board represented his best effort ever toward actually winning a major championship. As you may recall, he was that third fellow, along with Watson and Hubert Green, battling for the lead all the way down the backstretch on Sunday only to find that Player, who had been three holes ahead, was sitting in the clubhouse with the low score. Even so, Funseth had his moments in the spotlight of national television, including a 20-foot birdie attempt at the final green which, had the putt fallen, would have given him a tie. It barely missed. Player was the winner and Funseth could go back to being non-winner Rod Funseth.

As best he can recall, Funseth first popped up on a U.S. Open leader board in 1972 when he shot 73-73—146 for 36 holes at Pebble Beach. That was just two strokes behind co-leader and eventual winner Jack Nicklaus. Two early birdies the next day put him in a tie for the lead, but disaster struck on the back nine. His drive on the 12th, a par 3, caught a branch and went out-of-bounds; he lost his composure and rocketed to an 84. So long, leader board. He finished the Open tied for 25th.

Two years later, at Winged Foot, his Open appearance was brief but bright. He teed off early Thursday morning and birdied five of the first seven holes. Nobody does that to a U.S. Open course. The leader board barely had time to react to this remarkable explosion when Funseth came back to earth. He finished the day with a 73. By midday Friday he had retreated into the safety of the pack, winding up in a tie for 30th.

In Atlanta in 1976 Funseth also made a serious attempt to win the Open. "I started late on Thursday," he recalls. "The leader board was filled with guys at even par or one over. I birdied the 1st hole and up went my name. It stayed there the whole week. In fact when I birdied the 2nd hole, I was the leader."

As late as Sunday morning Funseth was tied for fifth, five strokes behind the leader, but a last-round 75—"I bogeyed five of the last eight holes"—put him in a tie for 11th, 10 strokes behind winner Jerry Pate, with whom he had been tied after 36 holes.

And, yes, at last year's Open in Tulsa, Funseth was very much a part of the battle. His first-round 69 gave him a share of the lead and a 70 placed him in a tie for fourth after 36 holes. All Saturday afternoon he was on the board as one of a cluster of players a stroke or two behind Green, the winner. But every time it seemed as though he might take the lead himself, a bogey would drop him back. On the front nine the last day he was technically in contention, but five bogeys in the last seven holes sent him reeling back to 10th place.

So you see, Funseth knows what life at the top is like, but having sniffed at it a number of times, he is apparently more content several rungs down. When Watson was dueling Nicklaus on the back nine of last year's classic British Open, Watson said, "This is what it's all about, isn't it?" And Nicklaus agreed, both players reveling in the struggle. Did Funseth feel any of that at Augusta this year when he, Player, Watson and Green were struggling for the Masters title? "If that's fun," he says with almost a sheepish grin. "I'd rather do something else."

Obviously Funseth must be doing something right even to reach the lofty positions from which he inevitably falls. Driving is one thing. At 45, he is still one of the longer hitters on the tour. And he is straight, which is handy for U.S. Opens, with their narrow fairways and thick rough. He is a deadly chipper, one of the best. But if you ask him about putting, he will tell you he is one of the worst. "Dan Sikes claims I'm the only player he knows of who has improved with age as a putter. I used to be terrible. Now I'm just bad."

There's that old attitude again. Funseth says it's not so much that he lacks confidence but that he is a realist and that when he is up against such players as Watson, Green and Player, the odds on his winning are small. Sandi Funseth counters with this story: The evening after Rod had set a course-record 65 at Riviera in the third round of the 1973 Los Angeles Open, thereby taking a one-stroke lead, he phoned her the good news. She congratulated him, whereupon he informed her that while indeed he was one stroke in the lead, he was also only 17 strokes out of last place. Whereupon she informed him that she planned on drinking champagne the following night and if it didn't work out that way, he'd better not come home. Funseth shot a cool 69 the next day to win by three, the second victory of his career. He has not won since.

Funseth's only other success, the 1965 Phoenix Open, gave Sandi the wrong impression of what life with him would be like. They had met several weeks before in the starter's tent at Pebble Beach during the Crosby. She was recovering from a broken leg, which she had sustained in a skiing—snow, not water—accident. They saw each other a lot during the California segment of the tour, and when it moved to Arizona, Rod went with it. He was anxious to fly back and visit Sandi but lacked the money. "Win the next tournament or two and you can," she told him. So Funseth went out, won Phoenix, flew back and married Sandi. The new Mrs. Funseth, positive thinker that she is, figured that's the way it would be every week.

"That was the most difficult thing I had to adjust to when we were first married," Sandi says, "the fact that Rod wouldn't go out there and win regularly. It took me a while to understand that I have a winner as a person, a wonderful husband and father."

A scrapbook of Funseth's achievements in golf could be entitled "Funseth Leads." Along with close calls in Masters and Opens, he has been on the brink of victory in many lesser events. He led Greensboro after three rounds in 1971, then lost to Buddy Allin in a playoff. He once led the Hope after 54 holes—"But that's a 90-hole tournament," Funseth naturally points out. Two years after he won Phoenix he led again after three rounds, but Julius Boros beat him. This year at Phoenix he led by two after 36. Miller Barber won. And so on.

Sitting in his living room in Napa, Calif., discussing his career, Funseth rests his chin in the palm of his right hand, partially covering his mouth, as if anything coming out of it might be unimportant. Stories he tells about himself tend to be self-deprecating or involve hard luck. For instance, in 1973 he was all but assured of a place on the Ryder Cup team going into the Western Open, the last event offering Ryder Cup points. To lose his spot, certain things had to happen: Billy Casper had to win, J.C. Snead had to finish fifth or better, Arnold Palmer ninth or better. Funseth was in Japan when he learned that all three players had done what they had to do and that he had missed the team by half a point.

"And I'd always dreamed of representing the United States in competition," he adds rather poignantly.

Another Funseth story. When TV coverage of the 1972 Open at Pebble Beach went on, the announcer at the long par-5 14th told the audience, "No one gets on in two on this hole." Playing the hole minutes earlier, Funseth had indisputably reached the green in two.

Rod and Sandi Funseth live in a ranch-style house beside the 12th hole of the Silverado Country Club in Napa. They have two children—Lisa, 11, and Mark, 10, a promising golfer. There is a pool in the backyard and a separate cabana where the kids and their friends can play without dismantling the house. Just down the road the Funseths have five acres where they keep a few horses. Land prices being what they are around Silverado, the property represents a splendid investment.

Funseth has never had a lot of money and he is not embarrassed to admit he is thrifty. "If I go out to dinner and see the meat is $10 and the fish $5, I'll take the fish," he says. "It's better for me anyway. I figure that's $5 I can send my mother."

Gladys Funseth lives in Spokane, where Rod grew up. "She's 69 and was voted the most improved golfer of the year at the club where she plays," Funseth says. Rod's father, who is dead, was born in Sweden, where von Seth is a common name. "I was told it means royalty," says Rod. "I'm not sure how our name became Funseth." Carl Funseth was a salesman in a clothing store in Spokane. "He never made any money," says Funseth.

One day when Rod was about 11, his parents played a round of golf with Rod and his older brother Carl as caddies. The seed was planted. The two brothers began hitting shots in a field behind the house and before long they were competing in the junior city championships, several times against each other. Rod worked at a variety of golf jobs after school and on weekends—starter, green-keeper and eventually in pro shops. Much of the playing he did was on the sly. At one place, the Downriver Golf Course in Spokane, the pro drove a '41 yellow Oldsmobile. "We learned to run when we saw yellow," he recalls. He would also play just before dark, hitting the ball and sprinting after it. If the moon was full, he would continue. "I think that's how I learned to play so fast," he says. The PGA has recently ranked its touring pros according to speed, in an effort to crack down on slow play. Funseth is the fastest on the tour.

When Funseth graduated from North Central High School in Spokane in 1951, he spent a semester at the University of Idaho, then returned to Washington, where he went to work for the Navy as a draftsman in the Bremerton shipyards. He continued to play a lot of golf, competing in a variety of amateur events in the Pacific Northwest. He showed such promise that in 1956 a group of local businessmen sponsored him on the tour to see how he would do. He played in 10 tournaments as an amateur and in one, the Caliente Open in Tijuana, Mexico, he led with eight holes to play before he slipped—thus setting the pattern—to a tie for third, three strokes behind Mike Souchak. Even so, that was better than two promising young pros, Billy Casper and Gene Littler.

Encouraged, Funseth turned pro and began working at a variety of clubs, including Thunderbird in Palm Springs and, briefly, Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Although he made appearances on the tour—he achieved his first earnings, $900, in 1961 for finishing tied for 11th in the Carling Open Invitational—the security of the club pro jobs he held, plus a series of injuries to his rib cage, kept him from playing full time until 1965. In the 13 years since, his best showing was in 1973, his Los Angeles Open year, when he earned $89,145, which placed him 29th on the money list. His worst was in 1977, his $25,400 putting him 92nd on the list.

Partly for this reason, partly because of his age—"I don't know too many of the young guys on the tour," he says—and partly because of aches and pains, Funseth thinks about giving up the tour. At Greensboro this year, just before the Masters, a couple of fingers on his right hand were hurting so badly he considered quitting right then. Altering his grip slightly, he was able to continue. Because his earnings have dropped below the top 60, he is exempt from Monday qualifying this year only because his career earnings, $511,896 at the start of the year, were in the top 50 lifetime. As a matter of fact, they were exactly 50th.

However, under PGA rules a player is allowed to use that exemption only once, so Funseth can not fall back on it again in 1979. Fortunately, his second-place finish at Augusta earned him $20,000, and with $36,000 in winnings so far this year, he should make the top 60 and be free, if he wishes, to play at least one more year.

Many veteran players need never worry about such things because they can generally get a sponsor's exemption, the sponsor of a tournament being glad to have someone like Doug Sanders, Bruce Devlin or Gay Brewer in the field. But as Funseth himself says, "I've never been a gallery draw. Who wants a Rod Funseth?"

Just possibly a lot more people than he thinks.


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