Downtown, a 12-foot statue of Fred Funk stands in front of the Mutual of Omaha headquarters building at 33rd and Dodge Streets.
Made of composite material, the statue commemorates Funk’s 2009 victory in the U.S. Senior Open at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind. It was erected because MOO (I’ve always wanted to use that abbreviation) has been one of Funk’s sponsors for almost a decade.
Funk has never stood taller – blue golf shirt, yellow slacks, white shoes, putter in hand, 10-foot scoreboard behind him. This twice-life-size statue is quite startling and attracted a crowd when I was there.
“Freddie Funk,” barked a pretentious man from Iowa, trying to invoke familiarity through language.
How ironic that there is nothing pretentious about Funk. He is Plain Old Fred, one of those down-home guys who is extremely pleasant and consistently engaging. He will sign autographs and answer questions til the cows come home.
Perhaps the golf gods have something in mind here at Omaha Country Club for the 2013 renewal of the U.S. Senior Open. Twice he has bogeyed par-5 holes with wedges in his hand, and once he has putted a ball entirely off a green, and yet he remains among a group of contenders in senior golf’s most prestigious and meaningful championship. His scores are 67-70 on the par-70 layout.
When asked about driving distance, Funk said he “doesn’t have that much speed to start with,” which made me wonder if he might ask his 12-foot avatar to blast a few tee shots.
“Great idea,” he responded. “Do you think anybody would notice?”
Funk is short and straight off the tee. A 12-foot man likely would be very long and chronically sideways, although such a spectacle undoubtedly would provide a boost in attendance. I can see the headline now: “Giant Funk Man attracts 200,000 people to Senior Open.”
Forgive the fantasy, please. Funk has enough trouble with reality. He has been suffering all year with a sore back, although he says his back is noticeably stronger this week.
“It’s been killing me all year not to be in the hunt,” he admitted. “I’m swinging really good right now, the best I have all year. For the first time, my body’s allowing me to swing the way I know how to swing, and I’m having fun out there again . . . This is the first time all year I’m really playing golf. I’m able to hit shots.
“Before, everything has just been slapping it around. I haven’t been able to swing hard enough to flight the ball the way I want to or control different shots – hit it low, hit it high, wherever. Now I have the ability this week because my back’s feeling a lot better, and I’m able to go after it.”
Why the improvement? He doesn’t know for sure, but his most recent therapy included hiking. “I spent four days last week in the Shenandoah Valley,” he related, “hiking the Appalachian Trail four days in a row, hiking all the hills.”
So the hills of Omaha Country Club – this is perhaps the hilliest course ever used for a major golf championship among men or women – are no challenge. “This golf course is flat compared to that Skyline Drive,” Funk said.
After 36 holes, Funk was still kicking himself over two bogeys on par-5 holes. “Making bogeys on No. 2 yesterday and No. 6 today was not a good thing,” he said. “If I can clean up the wedges a little bit, that would be really good.”
On No. 6, he actually putted his ball off the green. “Dynamite for hands” is how he explained it. “It’s just little things out there. Everybody’s got to adjust.”
The most important requirement in the Senior Open? “The bottom line here,” he replied, “is you’ve just got to stay out of the rough. If you stay out of the rough, you can score. If you go into the rough, you’re dead.”
Funk has hit 21 or 26 fairways and 27 of 36 greens. That places him among the top 10 in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation. His average driving distance isn’t bad, either, at 270.5 yards.
Can he win? He didn’t want to sound arrogant by answering that question, so I figured I might as well ask his statue.
“I’ll steamroll all those guys,” the voice said.
Holy cow, a talking statue. Well, not really. It was just one of my friends standing behind the make-believe Funk.