He went from 20/300 to 64-66. Last week Fred Funk, a squinty-eyed Tour veteran, repaired the squint by staring into a laser beam for 60 seconds. Three days later he was leading the Kemper Open thanks to his first two scorching rounds, and though he stumbled on Sunday to finish tied for third, golfers with perfect vision were looking to follow his lead.
"My eyes are fine, but I want that surgery," joked Steve Pate.
Funk, 41, coached the Maryland golf team for seven years before getting up the nerve to try the Tour in 1989. He has won four times while fiddling nonstop with his swing, his grip and the contact lenses that corrected his astigmatism. "I hated changing my contacts, cleaning them all the time," he says. "They distracted me when I putted, too. I always seemed to be putting through a smudge." He was intrigued when Tom Kite had laser eye surgery last winter. Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken, NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, baseballer Jeff Conine and even Fanny Sunesson, Nick Faldo's caddie, underwent similar operations. Kite and Sunesson urged Funk to look into the matter. Two days before the Kemper, he had his eyes examined by ophthalmic surgeon Mark Whitten, who told Funk that his vision could quickly be fixed. "We could do the surgery anytime," Whitten said.
"How about now? I'm an impatient guy," said Funk. Moments later he was an outpatient. First came anesthetic drops to numb Funk's corneas. Soon he was watching a flashing red light, keeping perfectly still as Whitten used a microkeratome, an instrument sharper than any razor, to slice a thin flap of clear, rubbery cornea from the surface of his eye. "Things got blurry," says Funk, who was more troubled by a burning smell in the room until the doctor explained that the scent was caused by the gases generating the beam. In the next minute Whitten's laser reshaped Funk's cornea to prescription perfection. There were no stitches; healing began immediately, along with better vision. When the lights came on and Funk looked around the doctor's office, he could see "everything, like I had binoculars." The world was his sharper image catalog.
Was it shortsighted to risk an operation on the eve of a tournament? "I probably should have been hesitant," says Funk. "Dr. Whitten said there was a one-to five-percent chance I'd miss the Kemper—good odds, but I was still changing my vision. That could really screw a golfer up. But I'm not the type to hesitate."
A restless experimenter, Funk changes his grip almost daily. Two weeks ago at the Memorial he interlocked on Thursday, overlapped on Friday and interlocked all weekend on his way to a 38th-place finish. Sometimes he overlaps with the driver but interlocks with his irons on the same hole. Still, no amount of improvising could have prepared him for the sights he woke up to on the Wednesday before the Kemper. "I could read the numbers on the alarm clock," he recalls. "Faraway things were crystal clear." Driving to die TPC at Avenel, he read the license plates of cars 100 feet ahead. But at the course he found that he could barely decipher the word Titleist on his ball: "Things were fuzzy up close, and my depth perception was off' On the driving range he had trouble judging die distance from his eyes to the ball. He barely made contact with the first few balls, topping them like a duffer. "It looked so far down to the ball. For the first time in my life, I felt tall," says the 5'8" Funk.
Still lacking depth perception during Thursday's first round, he relied more than usual on caddie Paul Jungman. Funk would look at a putt and say, "Paul, I have no clue." With Jungman as seeing-eye caddie, he shot 64 to put FUNK atop the Kemper's leader boards, which he could now read from two fairways away. "I'm sure it helped that I had no expectations," he said, adding that he has been "working on my attitude, trying to be looser" since he angrily tossed a club earlier this year and accidentally hit Jungman. Aghast at his behavior that day, Funk swore he would reform, and last week he was loose enough to laugh when a reporter suggested that improved vision might bring more traps, lakes and O.B. stakes into view. "Thanks a lot. I'll focus on that tomorrow," he said.
With less ocular pressure and none of the self-imposed kind, the Maryland native kept Kemper galleries shouting all week. The stage was set for a Broadway finale: Bring in 'da noise, bring in 'da Funk. But on Sunday morning he hooked a tee shot into the water and made a triple bogey. Soon he was six over par for the day, bleeding like the capillaries that reddened his left eye. Still, he stayed loose. He waved a towel, pretending to surrender to the course and eventual winner Stuart Appleby. Funk went on to play the last 13 holes even par for a 77 that felt better than it looked. Third place was worth $90,200, his best paycheck of the year. His eyes weren't the whole story, for something else was different, too, something hardly anyone noticed: The new, loose Funk finally got a grip.
"I interlocked all week," he said.