Commentary

Open still holds lure for Funk, Lehman

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Fred Funk has a bad knee. Tom Lehman has been there, done that. If these 50-something golfers had decided to take a pass on the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, who would have blamed them?

Getting into the tournament is an ordeal just short of tournament torture for those who must qualify. Funk headed to a course in Maryland on Monday to battle 70 other players for seven spots. Lehman, who played in the Memorial Tournament, decided to hang around Columbus, Ohio, for the 36-hole qualifier, where there were 120 players for 17 spots.

[+] EnlargeTom Lehman
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireIn his career, Tom Lehman owns five top-six finishes at the U.S. Open, including a tie for second in 1996 at Oakland Hills.

That's a lot of mental and physical anguish for which players several years young have been known to skip. And yet, the U.S. Open is enough of a lure to deal with the hassle. At least for these guys.

"Of course, you wish you were exempt," said Lehman, who qualified by shooting scores of 67-67 to tie for seventh at his qualifier. "Yeah, it's a pain in the butt, you roll your eyes, you go do it. But more than anything, it's the greatest championship in the world to me, and it seems you'd do anything to play.

"If it's 36 holes or 72 holes or 108 holes, you do it. I want to play. I'm 50 now and know that I'm not going to have a lot more chances.

"Just being able to qualify for the U.S. Open … it could have been in Alaska, for all I care. I just wanted to play. There are tournaments I wish I could play one more time before I retire. I'm not sure I'll get in the Masters ever again. At the U.S. Open, I've got at least one more chance, and if I play well, I have a chance to get back."

Funk had a different mindset. He missed the Open at Bethpage in 2002 and dearly wanted to make the field, even though he has been battling knee problems for the better part of the past year. He wavered about entering, even wavered about staying after starting out a few over par.

But he found something with his swing during the final nine holes of the morning round and toughed it out. But unlike Lehman, Funk had to grind in Maryland, earning the last spot in a playoff.

And that almost didn't come about because Funk figured he was done after he shot rounds of 70-69. He left the course and was at a local hotel, drinking a beer and about to have dinner with his caddie, Mark Long, when he got a call from United States Golf Association officials basically saying: Where are you?

Funk was in a playoff, where six players were squaring off for four spots.

"That would have been the most idiotic thing ever," said Long, Funk's longtime caddie who said he simply should have rechecked the scoreboard to make sure Funk was eliminated. Long has the distinction as the man who created the official U.S. Open yardage book for Bethpage Black earlier in the spring.

In the sudden-death playoff, four extra holes were needed to determine the final qualifier, and Funk finally prevailed with a par at the last one.

"I had a number I thought I needed to shoot, and when I talked to my wife about it on the phone afterward, she was surprised how disappointed I was, because I said I was going to take a don't-care attitude," Funk said. "Then the first thing I saw when I went into the restaurant was Tiger [Woods] in the parking lot after a practice round [Monday] at Bethpage on the TV. I thought, 'I'll probably never get to play there, never have a reason to play there.'

[+] EnlargeFred Funk
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesFred Funk didn't play in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. But the last time the year's second major was held on Long Island at Shinnecock Hills, Funk finished sixth.

"Then literally two minutes later, the phone rang, and luckily I was only a mile down the road."

Funk's best finish in a U.S. Open was a sixth in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, which is also on Long Island. He played in the second-to-last group Sunday with Phil Mickelson, who finished second to winner Retief Goosen.

Although Funk has struggled with cartilage problems in his right knee -- a staph infection in the knee this past fall added to the misery -- he said he could not resist the U.S. Open.

"I love playing in the U.S. Open because the atmosphere is so special," said Funk, who has played in just three PGA Tour events this year, with his best finish a tie for 79th at the Players Championship.

He recently lost in a playoff at the Principal Charity Classic on the Champions Tour and tied for seventh Sunday at a Champions event in Austin, Texas. In his career, Funk has won eight times on the PGA Tour and added four victories on the senior circuit.

"Even though it's a brute of a golf course, it's still the U.S. Open," said Funk, who will turn 53 on Sunday. "And with the New York fans, it's unique and special. I had a great experience when I was at Shinnecock, and that was probably foremost in my mind as I tried to make it."

What Lehman remembers best about the U.S. Open is the four close calls.

From 1995 through 1999, Lehman never finished worse than a tie for fifth and was in the final group of the final round each time.

The '96 and '97 Opens were especially tough, as Lehman missed a playoff with Steve Jones by 1 stroke after driving into a fairway bunker on the final hole at Oakland Hills, then a year later shot a final-round 73 at Congressional to miss a playoff with Ernie Els by 2 strokes.

Best Ball Challenge

"If I had to be honest, I'm disappointed that I didn't win at least one of them," said Lehman, whose five PGA Tour titles included the 1996 British Open. "There were four where I was in the final group, three where I was leading or tied for the lead and two where I played really well on Sunday.

"Those are the ones I think about the most -- I did everything I had to do and still didn't win. A mistake at the wrong time or whatever it might be. You can go one by one. … Each one has a life of its own. The fact that I didn't get any is very disappointing."

Like Funk, Lehman has battled some injuries (shoulder). They led to his worst season since 1991 last year, when he finished 142nd on the money list. This year, Lehman is using a onetime exemption for those who are among the top 25 on the career money list.

After missing his first four cuts, Lehman has made six in a row, with his best a tie for eighth at the Transitions Championship. He tied for 45th at the Memorial. Lehman also has played twice on the Champions Tour, winning the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf with Bernhard Langer.

"Right now, at this point in time, I get to play a number of great golf tournaments," Lehman said. "I'm really enjoying golf. There's a chance I can play eight majors this year. … I've got the best schedule in golf."

For Funk, no matter what happens at Bethpage, he has a good story about how he got there.

"You know, that Corona and crab cake story is a pretty good one," Long said. "But we need to embellish it into a whole bucket of beer and not just one."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com