BLOOMINGTON — Gene Funk III was known as “Curly” to his friends, which meant just about everyone.
As Funk got older, getting the best of those friends on the golf course didn’t sit well with him, either. So Funk preferred watching others, including his sons, Duncan and J.B., play in the competitive Bloomington-Normal tournament scene.
Funk, who won four Bloomington-Normal City Tournament titles and two B-N Medal Play crowns, died Monday at age 77.
“Curly was such a great guy. In my estimation, he was a guy’s guy,” said Rusty Wells from his home in Pinehurst, N.C. “Everyone liked being around him, either playing cards or on the golf course. He was benevolent and helped a lot of people that not everyone knew about.”
Wells said he first met Funk while a caddy at Highland Park Golf Course. Funk, who was a Bloomington Country Club member, wanted to play against some of the better players in town who weren’t at the club.
Funk won his first City Tournament (now known as Match Play) in 1955 when he was 20, beating his idol, Morgan Evans, in the finals. Funk added City Tournament titles in 1959, 1961 and 1962. The Medal Play was introduced in 1961 and Funk promptly won the inaugural event as well as being victorious in 1963.
When the Bloomington-Normal Golf Hall of Fame was formed in 2004, Funk was part of the first induction class.
“He was extremely competitive when he was younger,” said Wells. “When he lost a match he was ready to replay it again.”
Wells later served as Illinois State’s golf coach in the 1970s, and Funk helped out as an unofficial assistant coach for a powerful Redbird squad that included D.A. Weibring, Brad Barker, Gary Ostrega and Bill Kirkendall. Funk developed a close friendship with Weibring and followed him closely throughout the PGA Tour and later Champions Tour.
Barker credited Funk with getting him started in golf about 50 years ago at BCC. “He was a friend of my parents,” said Barker. “I watched him and thought that might be fun.”
While Barker was intrigued by Funk’s “dance” before hitting the ball, it was more than golf that intrigued him.
“He was a great gentleman and story teller,” said Barker. “He loved people and most everyone loved him. He had a great sense of humor and hardly ever swore.”
Barker remembered that after Funk and his family returned to the Twin Cities from living in Michigan in the late 1960s, Funk didn’t get the same thrill from winning city titles. He was coaxed into playing in the Medal Play in 1970 and finished tied for third with an 18-year old Barker.
“There were six to eight guys who were at the top and they were all his close friends,” said Barker. “He found out playing against good friends made it more difficult.”
Bloomington-Normal’s all-time City Tournament champion, Frank Niepagen, also said Funk was influential in his becoming a golfer. Niepagen said he and a friend would hunt for golf balls outside the fence at Highland Park.
When the City Tournament was at Highland Park in 1959, 11-year-old Niepagen watched Funk and liked the way he hit a draw off the tee along with his fine wedge play and putting.
“He was the first guy I was really impressed with,” said Niepagen, who won six City Tournament crowns among his 15 Bloomington-Normal titles.
Niepagen’s only match against Funk in the City Tournament came in 1971 at Highland Park. Even though Funk “was a little past his prime,” said Niepagen, they came to No. 18 even in a second-round match. On No. 18, Niepagen said he had a 12-foot birdie putt spin out and then missed a short par putt to lose, 1-up.
Funk later lost 1-up in the semifinals to eventual champion John Bova, another close friend, and never played in the tourney again. But when the Two-Man Best Position was introduced in 1974, Funk teamed with Jack Capodice to finish second.
“He was a gentleman and well liked by anyone he knew,” said Niepagen.