A Slam Funk

The brilliance of Fred Funk, a Shark sighting, an unlikely underdog, a hero's welcome for old Tom and crazy crowds made for the best U.S. Senior Open in a decade
August 09, 2009

The biggest roarlast Thursday at Crooked Stick Golf Club, outside Indianapolis, was reservedfor Tom Watson. Reinvigorated and rediscovered after his gallant run at theBritish Open, Watson was given a hero's welcome simply for walking from theputting green to the 1st tee to kick off his U.S. Senior Open. ¶ But the fansalso went wild when the normally calm and collected Tim Jackson, an amateur wholed the tournament for two rounds to become the crowd favorite, holed astupid-long par-saving putt at the 11th hole on Sunday and took aHale-Irwin-at-Medinah victory lap around the green. ¶ Then again, it was prettyloud when Greg Norman sank an eagle putt on Saturday to take the lead and makeeveryone think that this could be the week he would finally hold on for hisfirst senior trophy.

Yet how could anyof the above match the cheers for Fred Funk on the 72nd hole when he made abirdie to wrap up a runaway victory? Funk didn't need the birdie, but it was afitting 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: Twentyunder is the lowest subpar total—by three strokes—ever shot in a U.S. GolfAssociation championship anytime, anywhere, by anyone, including TigerWoods.

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

Here is thetemplate 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-oldJackson, 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 anamateur in any U.S. Open—men's, women's or senior; and lots and lots ofspectators. This Senior Open was, without a doubt, the Champions tour's finesthour in years. The only thing missing in Indianapolis was a dramatic Sunday,but Funk's strong finish (seven birdies, no bogeys) and record-setting playmade up for it.

"The biggestthing is getting my name on that trophy with all the great names on there andbeing part of that history," said the 53-year-old Funk, who at first ratedhis win on a par with his victory at the 2005 Players Championship but thenchanged his mind, saying, "This might be a notch higher because it's anational championship. This is big."

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

Funk's performancewas all the more remarkable considering his physical condition. Funk has beenplaying this year with a bum right knee and a banged-up left shoulder. He hadknee surgery last year, then contracted a staph infection that complicated hisrecovery. He walked with only a slight limp at Crooked Stick thanks to a kneebrace called the Unloader, which he picked up a few weeks ago and says was thekey to his good play. Says Long, "It really transformed his game. He canswing like there's nothing wrong with his knee. He couldn't do thatbefore."

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

Funk says theshoulder injury, a torn labrum that also will require surgery, is the directresult of favoring his bad knee while playing golf and is the reason he nolonger takes a practice swing before shots. Doctors told Funk he was O.K. toplay with the shoulder as long as he could. "How long is that going tolast?" asks Long. "We don't know."

Funk's ability toplay with pain took some of the attention away from the Tom Watson AppreciationTour. 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 becameill on his trip home from Scotland. "Never eat Chinese food overthere," said Watson, who was as white as a sheet two days before the SeniorOpen. He regained some color the next day, but when asked if his digestivetract felt better, he said, "No. It's like a screen door on asubmarine." Thanks for sharing.

Even two weekslater, Watson's epic run at Turnberry remained a hot topic as fellow prosshared where-were-you-when-Tom-finished stories. Loren Roberts, who tied withNorman for fourth in Indianapolis, said he and his wife cried followingWatson's playoff loss. Dan Forsman, 13th at Crooked Stick, said he stayed gluedto the tube at home in Provo, Utah, until it was time to go to church. Oncethere he received text updates from his son, who informed him that Watson'sshot 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 fromthere."

Isn't texting inchurch against the rules? "Yeah, they frown on that, as you canimagine," Forsman said. "But for those of us who follow this gamereligiously, Tom's week was a spiritual experience."

Last week's SeniorOpen at Crooked Stick was divine too.

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PHOTOPhotograph by MIKE EHRMANNLOW COUNTRY Funk's 20-under total was the best ever in a Senior Open by three strokes (Hale Irwin, 2000). PHOTOPhotograph by MIKE EHRMANNAM WAY Jackson, a real estate developer from Tennessee, was the surprise leader after the first two rounds.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)