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Fred Funk Remembers Arnold Palmer As 'Second Santa Claus'

September 27, 2016
When legendary golfer Arnold Palmer passed away Sept. 25, his golfing accomplishments alone would have made a nearly unparalleled obituary. Those who have offered eulogy, however, have almost unilaterally spoken not of his golf game, but instead of a man whose warmth and grace were unique, considering his truly larger-than-life stature. 

Count Takoma Park, Md., native and former PGA star Fred Funk among that group. The former University of Maryland golf coach spoke to PressBox Sept. 26 from Minnesota, where he is preparing to be part of the radio broadcast for the Ryder Cup. Funk spoke about his friendship and interactions with "The King," echoing how easy it was to be both terrified in Palmer's presence, yet humbled by his kindness. 

"I became really, really good friends with Arnie over the years, like he [was] with everybody," Funk said. "He was such a special man. I called Arnie 'The Second Santa Claus.' We had the original Santa Claus, everybody loved Santa Claus. And then Arnie came along and just brought a whole different dimension to the game. ... The reason anybody's doing anything in golf right now is because of Arnie."

That nickname, "Arnie," wasn't a term Funk was always comfortable using to describe the seven-time major champion. When they first met, in the late 1980's, Funk was attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open. He was the first alternate after an event in Hunt Valley, Md., but received the opportunity to go to a sectional in Cleveland. 

"I fly on up there," Funk said. "On Sunday, I get there to the club. I've done enough of these to know, when there's gallery ropes around, that that's very unusual. So I walk in, check in and I see all these gallery ropes. I go [over] to the pro and say, 'What's the deal with the gallery ropes?' He says, 'That's for your group.' I go, 'What do you mean, "My group?"' He says, 'Well, you're playing with Arnie tomorrow.' And I went, 'Palmer?' And he goes, 'Is there another one?' I go, 'No, there's not! What the hell is he doing here?' They said that was the first year the USGA made him qualify. It was 1987 or '88, I think. 

"So I got paired with him; it was Larry Rinker, Arnold Palmer and me. So the next morning, I'm a nervous wreck. He's on the putting green. I remember he had four putters laying on the putting green and putting with one at a time, trying to figure out which one he was going to use. I went up to him and I said, 'Mr. Palmer, Fred Funk. I'm taking Bobby Nicholls' [spot].' He says, 'Yeah, yeah, Fred, we'll have a great day. Just call me Arnie.' And I said, 'Okay, Mr. Palmer.' It took me 27 holes -- it was a 36-hole day -- to get an 'Arnie' out. We had a great day."

Funk would go on to forge a relationship with Palmer during his own career, which saw him win eight times on the PGA Tour and nine times on the Champions Tour, including three major titles. That relationship would include another memorable day on a golf course with "Arnie" in 1997.

"I was playing with [Jack] Nicklaus at Doral," Funk said. "I knew I was in Augusta that year. So I asked Jack at the end of the round -- I went back in the scorers' trailer because I walked out and forgot to ask him. I walked back in and said, 'Jack, any chance I could play a practice round with you this year at Augusta?' And he goes, 'Yeah, that would be great, Fred. Why don't you join Arnie and me on Wednesday?' And I about threw up." 

Nicklaus coordinated a match pitting him and Palmer against Funk and U.S. Mid-Amateur Champion Ken Bakst for 11 a.m. that Wednesday. After hitting the range at 7:30 a.m., Funk and Palmer exchanged pleasantries. What happened when they reached the first tee wasn't nearly as pleasant for Funk. 

"We finally get to the tee and Arnie hits, and Jack hits, and Ken hits and then I'm up and I'm shaking like a leaf," Funk said. "I snap-hooked it on one, over in the ninth [hole's] trees. [I] duck sliced it on two and I snap-hooked it again on three. Jack came up to me on three, and he hit me in the shoulder. He goes, 'What the hell is wrong with you?' I go, 'Jack, I can only handle one legend at a time, pal. I'm a little nervous.' He just started laughing. He said, "Just lighten up a little bit.' 

"I shot about 106 on the front. I shot 32 on the back. We won the back, and we won the 18. We went out that day to the Champions' loft afterwards and had a great day. But during the whole day, Arnie and Jack were talking about themselves; they were talking about the history of The Masters, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead. From the ninth hole on they were getting standing ovations at every hole. Ken and I would just hang back and take it all in. As we walked off each tee, and walking down the fairways, we were just getting a history lesson about everything. It was just truly the best day of my life in golf, more than anything I've done individually. That's as good as it gets." 

The friendship Funk found with Palmer was obviously special. But it might have never happened if he'd known anything about that Cleveland sectional nearly 30 years ago, other than he was taking Bobby Nichols' spot in the field. 

"That was the first time I had met him," Funk said. "I think if they had told me I was paired with Arnie, I would have choked and not gotten on the airplane."

For more of Funk's memories of Palmer, listen to the full interview here: