Players’ struggles on the Champions Tour are visible and often audible. This is the 50-and-over bunch, after all.
There are muffled winces and groans at placing and picking up a tee or retrieving a made putt. Knees creak, hips pop and necks crack.
Two years ago, Hal Sutton hit his second shot into a back-left bunker on the 14th hole at TPC Twin Cities during the 3M Championship. He addressed the shot then backed off several times.
The sound of bone-on-bone in his hip was loud enough to interrupt his pre-shot routine.
“That’s probably when I knew it was time,” Sutton said. “It hurt bad. All the time. It’s one thing to hurt all day long, but if you hurt all night long too you don’t rest. Nothing fixed it.”
He opted for hip replacement three months later, then had the other side done the following year.
Sutton joins a long list on the Champions Tour who face long waits and invasive pat-downs at airports thanks to metal where there was once bone.
For the 1983 PGA Championship winner, it’s a small price to pay to be on the road back to high-caliber golf.
“I’m a golfer first and a human being second,” said Sutton, who also suffered a mild heart attack on Valentine’s Day. “I know that sounds backwards, but I won’t be at peace until I do what I want to do at a level I’m comfortable with.”
Fred Funk knows that tune.
Many players will take advantage this week at a “bomber’s paradise” of a golf course for the 3M. He’s not one of them; at 5-8, Funk never has been a big hitter. But at least he’ll get around the course pain-free after complete knee replacement in 2009.
Winner of the PGA Tour’s Players Championship in 2005 at age 48, Funk was expected to join the Champions Tour soon after and bolt to the top of the leaderboards with ease. But with each passing week, Funk’s right knee grew worse because of ligament damage.
Excess fluid was routinely drained. He contracted a staph infection during the 16th needle poke of 18 procedures in 2008.
“Sicker than a dog,” Funk said.
He recovered and continued to make starts on the Champions Tour. He won the 2009 U.S. Senior Open and made the cut in the U.S. Open at age 53, finishing 60th.
Eventually his knee had enough. Funk had it fully replaced.
Four weeks later doctors told him to try hitting golf balls again. Funk went right for the biggest test: a sand trap.
“I dug my feet in and that simple little twisting motion was something I could not do [before],” he said. “When that was OK, I knew I was OK.”
Funk and Sutton became spokesmen for Stryker Orthopaedics after their replacement surgeries. They make a point to educate peers on the Champions Tour who might be candidates for similar procedures.
“All the science and everything that goes into it is remarkable,” Funk said. “Mine was a career-changer after I thought the injury might be a career-ender.”
Former 3M Championship winner D.A. Weibring withdrew Tuesday and was replaced by Gary Hallberg.
Bob Niger and Tom Byrum shot 6-under-par 65s on Tuesday at Victory Links in Blaine to win the 3M Championship qualifying event. Stan Utley (4 under) also qualified. Joel Edwards and Marco Dawson advanced out of a five-way playoff for the final two spots. R.W. Eaks, the 2008 3M Championship winner, lost in the playoff.