Fred Funk has always been one of the most accurate golfers around. The 51-year-old veteran, who has played on the PGA Tour since 1989 and ranks No. 11 in career earnings, has made a fine living placing the ball where he wants it to go. "But I've always been one of the shorter hitters," he says. Funk drives an average of 273 yards, 193rd best on the Tour. On the other hand, he lands the ball on the fairway 72% of the time, good enough to rank sixth among all pro golfers.
Most weekend duffers would kill to hit the fairway three-quarters of the time with 270-yard drives. But it's a growing predicament for Funk, since professional golf has become a game for big hitters. Over the past several years, club technology and an emphasis on athleticism have made drives over 320 yards seem nearly pedestrian. Big bangers like Tiger Woods and John Daly average more than 300 yards per knock. As a result, tournament organizers are laying out courses longer than ever. Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters Tournament, has added more than 500 yards to its course since 1998. "The game has completely changed. It's become more of a power game," says Funk, who has chalked up eight career wins on the PGA Tour.
So, late last year, Funk began a workout regimen dedicated to helping add distance to his drive. It isn't a simple matter of pumping iron. In fact, lifting weights to add strength and muscle mass might hinder Funk's progress, a lesson he learned while on the golf team at the University of Maryland. After a period of intense lifting, he looked better at the beach, but "I couldn't hit the ball out of my shadow," he recalls. "I couldn't get the club back to perpendicular. I was basically muscle-bound."
His new routine, designed by Dr. Robert Donatelli, a physical therapy specialist who works with the PGA Tour, emphasizes balance and flexibility. Last November, Donatelli had Funk into his Las Vegas office for a two-week session that focused on sharpening Funk's proprioceptors--sensors in joints, muscles, and ligaments that feed the brain information about body movements, a sort of muscle sense. For instance, Donatelli stood a barefoot Funk on a metal platform, suspended by four chains. The platform was unstable, so it was a challenge for Funk to keep his balance, especially when Donatelli told him to stand on one foot and catch a medicine ball. "Your body adjusts to stabilizing itself and starts firing those [proprioceptors]," Funk says.
Donatelli and Funk did routines to improve strength, vision, and flexibility, as well as work on a machine called the Dynamic Edge, which shuttles the athlete from side to side like a downhill skier, in order to build lateral strength in Funk's hips and midsection. Soon, "he felt so stable that he was able to turn on the ball quicker and was able to [make] better contact," says Donatelli. The proof? After about a week of training, Funk's club-head speed jumped from 106 mph to about 113. As a rule of thumb, each additional mph of swing speed adds a yard and a half to a golf ball's flight.
Funk admits it's hard to stick with the program on the road. The schedule is demanding: Tournaments normally run Thursdays through Sundays, and on Wednesdays players often do Pro-Am events. At the beginning of a typical week, Funk will often spend Monday working out at home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. He'll mix in some strength training, homing in on his triceps, biceps, and shoulders, with lighter weights and plenty of reps. He'll try to get in a half-hour of cardio work and balance-boosting exercises. As the tournament gets into full swing later in the week, Funk phases out the weight training and focuses entirely on cardio, balance, and stretching--not to mention his golf game.
A more efficient swing becomes more important as Funk gets older. "You do lose range of motion," he says. "I'm not that flexible to start with." Indeed, Funk, who used to fight in Golden Gloves tournaments, at 5 feet 8 and a compact 165 pounds, is built more like a boxer than the ideal lithe and limber golfer. Making matters more urgent, Funk has battled a back injury all year, a problem he says is unrelated to his regimen with Donatelli.
Out on the course, the routine has not yet translated directly into more yards per drive. Funk's average is virtually the same as last year. Still, he says he feels a difference in his game. "My swing is longer now than it's ever been," he says. His results on the leaderboard in 2007 have certainly ticked forward. After a winless 2006, in February he became the fifth-oldest pro ever to win a PGA Tour event, at the Mayakoba Golf Classic near Cancún. He has also notched a win on the Champions Tour, golf's senior circuit. But "I just really want to keep beating these young guys," Funk says. "It feels really good to beat those guys."
By Brian Hindo