As play in the U.S. Open unfolds in Denver next week, do not be surprised if sooner or later (probably sooner) you see the name Funseth on the leader board, along with the likes of Nicklaus, Player, Watson and Green. Rod Funseth has been up there before, a leader in major championships a remarkable number of times for a man who in 17 years on the tour has won only twice and has never been among the top 20 money-winners in any year.
Take the most recent Masters—which in fact Funseth almost did. His name first appeared around noon on Friday, the second day of the tournament. He had started the morning at one over par, five shots out of first place, but suddenly he began making birdies all over Augusta. He came home with a 66, and when all the scores were in he was the Masters co-leader after 36 holes, tied with Lee Trevino. Funseth had been on top before at the Masters. In 1977 he shared the 36-hole lead with Tom Watson. Watson, of course, went on to win, so speculation among the superstitious at Augusta on Friday evening was that perhaps Trevino might win this year, that being tied with Funseth was some sort of omen. No one thought for a moment that Funseth would win—nor did he, though he hung in till the very end.
A part of Funseth's problem—maybe the biggest part—seems to be that he himself never thinks he can win. The year before, when he and Watson were tied, he had startled everyone in the Augusta press room by flatly stating that he would not win, could not win, that his game could not hold up. "Besides," he said, "they probably don't have a green jacket to fit me."
Remarks like that make Sandi Funseth squirm; they have tortured her for more than a decade. Sandi is a superbly confident person; years ago she was a national water-ski champion. It has taken her a good many of her 13 years of marriage to Funseth to adjust to what she openly refers to as her husband's negative attitude. "In my family we were all positive thinkers," she says. "I can't tell you how many players have told me how good Rod could be if he only stopped thinking negatively."
Funseth's lengthy appearance on the 1978 Masters leader board represented his best effort ever toward actually winning a major championship. As you may recall, he was that third fellow, along with Watson and Hubert Green, battling for the lead all the way down the backstretch on Sunday only to find that Player, who had been three holes ahead, was sitting in the clubhouse with the low score. Even so, Funseth had his moments in the spotlight of national television, including a 20-foot birdie attempt at the final green which, had the putt fallen, would have given him a tie. It barely missed. Player was the winner and Funseth could go back to being non-winner Rod Funseth.
As best he can recall, Funseth first popped up on a U.S. Open leader board in 1972 when he shot 73-73—146 for 36 holes at Pebble Beach. That was just two strokes behind co-leader and eventual winner Jack Nicklaus. Two early birdies the next day put him in a tie for the lead, but disaster struck on the back nine. His drive on the 12th, a par 3, caught a branch and went out-of-bounds; he lost his composure and rocketed to an 84. So long, leader board. He finished the Open tied for 25th.
Two years later, at Winged Foot, his Open appearance was brief but bright. He teed off early Thursday morning and birdied five of the first seven holes. Nobody does that to a U.S. Open course. The leader board barely had time to react to this remarkable explosion when Funseth came back to earth. He finished the day with a 73. By midday Friday he had retreated into the safety of the pack, winding up in a tie for 30th.
In Atlanta in 1976 Funseth also made a serious attempt to win the Open. "I started late on Thursday," he recalls. "The leader board was filled with guys at even par or one over. I birdied the 1st hole and up went my name. It stayed there the whole week. In fact when I birdied the 2nd hole, I was the leader."
As late as Sunday morning Funseth was tied for fifth, five strokes behind the leader, but a last-round 75—"I bogeyed five of the last eight holes"—put him in a tie for 11th, 10 strokes behind winner Jerry Pate, with whom he had been tied after 36 holes.
And, yes, at last year's Open in Tulsa, Funseth was very much a part of the battle. His first-round 69 gave him a share of the lead and a 70 placed him in a tie for fourth after 36 holes. All Saturday afternoon he was on the board as one of a cluster of players a stroke or two behind Green, the winner. But every time it seemed as though he might take the lead himself, a bogey would drop him back. On the front nine the last day he was technically in contention, but five bogeys in the last seven holes sent him reeling back to 10th place.