At 52, energetic Funk out to prove he can still play with the younger crowd

Fred Funk has treated his profession like the French approach dinner.

What's the hurry?

He didn't make the PGA Tour until he was 31, a decade later than most of his tour pals.

He played some of his best golf after he turned 45, when he also was discovered by golf fans, who enjoyed his exuberant, on-course personality.

He won the Players Championship against the toughest field in golf at 48, seven years later than the previous oldest winner.

And now, at age 52, after two successful years on the Champions Tour, Funk has decided to jilt the senior circuit and return in January full-time to the regular tour -- a faulty right knee permitting.

"I have this little itch, this little crawl under my skin to go out there and just have fun with the young guys for a while," said Funk, who turns 53 in June.

For fun? That's it?

"Well," he said, "maybe beat them somewhere."

Ah, beat them. There it is.

Funk, you see, believes he can still compete against the best players, with believe being the operative word.

"I know I can when I'm playing well. I have to be hitting on all cylinders, not only physically but mentally. I have to give myself a chance to do it," said Funk, known for his short but accurate driver and deadly long-iron play.

How accurate? Between 2002 and 2007, Funk was either first or second on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy. Since 1990, he finished the year tops in that category seven times and was in at least the top 3 on 14 different occasions.

The news of his plans, not surprisingly, has caused a stir on the Champions Tour, where Funk is well-liked among his peers and has achieved considerable success.

"I like Fred and I think he's nuts. I really do," said John Cook, prior to last week's season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship. "I don't know what the attraction is."

Jay Haas, 54, who bested Funk by 12 points to win the season-long Schwab Cup race, feels differently.

"Most of us have had enough of [the regular tour], but Fred has so much energy," he said. "And he has shown he can hang with those guys."

Added Tom Kite, who played 14 events on the regular tour in 2005 at age 55: "It will be interesting to see [how] he does."

Funk's reasoning goes beyond striving for Ws against younger players. Unlike Cook, Haas, Kite and many of the other veteran pros on the senior circuit, Funk -- the former University of Maryland golf coach -- reached the PGA Tour later in life.

"A lot of those guys joined the tour right out of college and for them enough is enough," he said. "But for me, I just want to go out there and say, 'Hey, I gave it a good run. Now I got that out of my system.'"

Funk also said there are multiple factors to his decision.

"It's just my enjoyment level of playing big money events with the young guys," he said. "A lot of my best friends are still out on the regular tour."

Funk has proven he can play well on both tours at the same time. In 2007, at 51, he earned over $1.2 million on the PGA Tour and won the Mayakoba Golf Classic -- the tour's first tournament stop in Mexico -- which was played opposite the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. That victory gave him exempt status on the PGA Tour until 2010. Funk also had six Top 10s in the 10 Champions Tour events he played, winning close to $1 million.

Despite his success, he said playing both tours is difficult.

"This year I found it impossible to play both."

Yet despite his intention to play full-time on the regular tour and only the majors on the Champions Tour in 2009, scheduling issues, course setups, and a proliferation of invitationals and other events that only take the world's top 50 players might limit him to 13 events on the regular tour, one less than he played this year.

"That's a little discouraging," he admitted. "I'm used to getting about 30 events in."

And then there's the matter of his deteriorating knee. He tweaked it while hitting a bunker shot in May at The Players Championship and had it scoped the next week. That got him through most of the season, but it began acting up again this fall. He played poorly at the Schwab Cup tournament, when he had a chance to catch Haas, who also did not play well. An MRI on Nov. 3 revealed more damage, which might require another surgery in the next week or so. If that's the case, Funk said he'll rehab the knee over six weeks and be ready to go in January.

Where others might cut back on their playing time, or quit altogether, that is not the case with Funk. Part of it has to do with the way he has succeeded -- and his mind set. He first made it through Q school in 1989, lost his card a year later and won it back again in 1990.

"My first goal was just to get on tour," he said. "Then my goal was to keep my card, which I did in 1990 and have kept it ever since. As the years went by, my goals and expectations changed and got bigger and bigger every year. To this day I still have this goal of seeing how good I can get. I feel I still have a lot to learn. I'm still improving.

"When my body and mind are good, I play at a really high level. If not, I can't compete, no matter what tour I'm on."

Another issue involving his return to the regular tour is the late-blooming popularity he has achieved. It began at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine in 2002, when Funk contended all week and captured the hearts of the fans, who loved his outgoing, ebullient personality. It continued at the Skins Game the following year, when he lost a bet to Annika Sorenstam after she out-drove him on a hole, and he donned a dress he had stashed in his bag. Funk, by the way, won the competition.

"I do enjoy that," Funk said of his popularity. "It helps a lot to have that recognition from the fans."

And no doubt, he admits, there are more fans attending regular tour events than senior circuit tournaments.

Funk is different in another way, too. He's the only Champions Tour member who travels with a young family. His wife, Sharon, homeschools their two children, Taylor, 13, and Perri, 8. They have been fixtures on both tours for years.

Taylor, according to Funk, is a fine player who has many friends among the pros.

"He's the mascot on both tours," said his father.

But his son has voted for dad to return to the regular tour, where Taylor has a number of friends his age.

Ditto for 50-year-old Sharon, Funk's biggest fan and supporter, who doubles as her husband's psychologist. After a few minutes on the phone with her, it's not hard to tell why.

"I've always encouraged him returning to the regular tour," she said. "I think he has a lot of talent, and he can still win out there. Mentally, if he's tough, and he's got confidence and he works on his short game, then I think he can compete. But if he gives that up, I don't think he can."

What about the knee?

"If it's not healthy," she said, "he has to figure out if he can play at that level."

In his mind, bum knee or not, Funk is headed to the regular tour.

"I'm planning on still making a run," he said.

If not, what's the hurry? There's always next year.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.