2005: Competition - Steady

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

On Monday, just about the time the real world was returning to work, thick gray clouds gave way to bright blue skies, and the sun broke through. Three miserable days of incessant rain finally gave way – believe it or not – to some golf.

If a 72-hole golf tournament indeed is more of a marathon than a sprint, The Players Championship morphed into a new level of endurance exam. It was a quadrathlon of sorts: Golf, swim, wait . . . and wait some more. Then again, with $8 million on the table and a five-year Tour exemption on hold, some things are worth the wait – even if it did take five seemingly endless days to play golf’s “fifth major.”

Fred Funk, a college golf coach in a former life, has waited as long as anybody to enjoy such a brilliant moment in the sun. He’d won six times on the PGA Tour, but joked that nearly all the second-tier events he’s won either no longer exist or have packed up and moved.

The Players Championship isn’t going anywhere.

The 48-year-old Funk played 32 holes Monday, overcoming his nerves to emerge from a leaderboard rich in experience but lacking a little in major championship panache. A closing sand save and clutch par putt on a trying day when winds whipped up to 35 mph gave him a round of 71 and left him at 9-under 279, one shot better than Scott Verplank, Luke Donald and a hard-charging Tom Lehman. One year after Adam Scott became the event’s youngest champion, Funk became its oldest. The $1.44 million payday was his biggest ever. The money is great, but Funk seemed far more rewarded by the prestige of winning such a big event.

“There are certain tournaments that hold higher value out here,” said Funk, who before last week had won only once (2004 Southern Farm Bureau Classic) since 1998. “Now I’ve got one of those.”

Funk’s last putt – 5 feet, 3 inches – was almost as long as he is tall, but he buried it in front of a partisan hometown crowd that had chanted “Fred-dy, Fred-dy” down the homestretch to boost their lovable local. He had a two-stroke lead as he stood on the green at the treacherous island 17th, but three-putted for bogey – his third three-putt in five holes – and had to scramble for par on the toughest hole on the golf course to stay out of a playoff. Funk pulled himself up in the nick of time.

“As strong as the Tour is from top to bottom, I can’t comprehend how big this really is for me,” he said. “But they can’t take it away from me.”

Funk, who finished 80th in driving distance but led the field both in fairways and greens, will turn 50 in 15 months. His early plan to jump to the Champions Tour will have to be re-evaluated now that he has a PGA Tour exemption through 2010. And winning The Players got him off and running toward his biggest ’05 goal – making the Presidents Cup team.

A handful of players had chances to make a run at Funk by getting to 9 under: Lehman, trying to post a number well ahead of the lead groups, slid a 15-footer for birdie past the hole at No. 18 that would have given him a final-round 67 on a day the final-round average was 76.512; Verplank (70) missed the 18th green with a 5-iron and failed to convert an 8-footer for par; and Luke Donald (76) watched a 25-foot birdie attempt roll through the fringe at 18 and tantalizingly track toward the hole before veering off.

Though buckets of rain made sure the tournament at times lacked for golf, when there was play, it featured plenty of intriguing subplots. The oft-injured Steve Jones, a former U.S. Open champion who fell off golf’s Doppler radar, emerged as the opening-day leader, and the smallish but brutish 17th hole claimed its share of victims, especially once Monday’s tricky wind reared its head.

Bob Tway made 12 there Monday morning, and Funk witnessed it. Joe Ogilvie and Aussie Richard Green were chasing Masters berths. Padraig Harrington was competing for his ill father, Paddy, who was home in Ireland and losing his fight with cancer.

Of course, the week started with great buildup of the Big Four: Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. But the TPC at Sawgrass never has been any of the four’s cup of preferred tea. In a combined 42 starts coming into the event, the Big Four had almost as many missed cuts (8) as top 10s (9), and only Woods had managed to win. None would finish in the top 10.

The only drama with Woods was whether he would survive the 36-hole cut, which didn’t fall until Sunday. (Round 3 didn’t conclude until Monday morning.) Woods made it on the number at 1-under 143, extending his streak of cuts made on Tour to 140, but he never was a factor in the tournament. Though he won at Sawgrass in 2001 and was a runner-up in 2000, Woods never carries the appearance of a guy playing like he needs the money at The Players. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish at TPC since his victory. Maybe it’s because that little shindig in Augusta garners the larger circle on his spring schedule.

Dangerous lightning situations and rain got so bad Friday, Saturday and Sunday that the Tour was issuing daily releases updating the cumulative time delay, which would surpass 13 hours. Friday’s second round was started, washed out after 44 minutes, then restarted a day later with lift, clean and place rules in effect.

PGA Tour tournament director Mark Russell spent his week glued to The Weather Channel and trying to find a way to somehow finish the tournament earlier than Tuesday. The field was prepared to play beyond Monday, too, as the Tour’s four-man Policy Board took a peek at the bleak weekend forecast and voted to temporarily discard the regulation that states a final round cannot be started Tuesday unless at least half the final round is concluded Monday.

“The tournament regulations say tournaments will make every effort to get them done by Monday and not play Tuesday,” said BellSouth Classic tournament director Dave Kaplan, whose March 31-April 3 Atlanta event was put on hold awaiting 40 players from TPC to arrive. “Apparently, that’s not true for events owned by the Tour.”

As some players moaned about the possibility of staying in town beyond Monday, Russell kept everything in perspective.

“Hey, nobody is dying here,” he shrugged.

At least they weren’t until they got to the 17th tee. In the end, though, one man left smiling. Fred Funk lives five minutes from Sawgrass, and he

takes notice when he drives down the road to the clubhouse and sees all those banners emblazoned with the names of past champions.

“You see Calvin Peete won way back, and David Duval, and Davis (Love III), and all the great champions,” Funk said. “Now I’m going to be on one of those.

“It’s going to be pretty neat.”

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