BLOOMINGTON — How different were things in 1961?
This newspaper, known as The Daily Pantagraph, cost 10 cents. Roger Maris was stalking Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable home-run record of 60. The Russians and Americans were engaged in a space race. The final match in the Bloomington-Normal City Golf Tournament drew an estimated crowd of 1,500.
Yet when a new tourney was introduced that September, something stayed the same.
Gene Funk III was still the King of Golf in the Twin Cities.
The Bloomington-Normal Medal Play Tournament will be held for the 50th time this weekend. The first round will be played Saturday at Highland Park Golf Course, the spot where Funk claimed the initial Medal Play title in 1961 a month after winning his third City Tournament.
“I don’t know how many there were, but we probably had 10 really good players. Now they have 45 or 50,” the 75-year-old Funk said Wednesday. “What a difference that would be. To me it’s unbelievable how good they are (now).”
Make no mistake.
Gene Funk was good. Really good.
Between 1955 and 1963, Funk won four City Tournament crowns in six tries and two Medal Play titles in two attempts. He then moved to Michigan and didn’t return to the area until the late 1960s.
“I came back and told Gordie (Shepherd) and some of those guys that I’m not playing anymore,” said Funk. “I didn’t want to wake up on Sunday morning, because I had done all that, and have to play Irving (Bernstein) or Gordie for 36 holes.”
Funk said some arm twisting by John Bova and Frank Niepagen made him somewhat come out of his golf retirement. He gave the Medal Play one more try, finishing tied for third in 1970. He also advanced to the City Tournament semifinals in 1971.
When the Two-Man Best Position began in 1974, Funk and his good friend, Jack Capodice, finished second. They played together for several years before Funk competed with his sons, Duncan and J.B.
“Duncan said to J.B., ‘You can have him,’ ” said Gene Funk. “We played pretty good.”
Indeed, Gene and J.B. Funk advanced to the Two-Man quarterfinals in 1990 when the elder Funk was 55.
When the Bloomington-Normal Golf Hall of Fame was formed in 2004, Gene Funk was part of the first induction class.
“I drove it pretty well and putted really well,” said Funk. “You have to be able to putt.”
Funk said his memory isn’t as good as it once was, but don’t be fooled — he’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of Bloomington-Normal golf.
He remembers caddying at Bloomington Country Club for Hal Stone Jr., who won the City Tournament from 1945-47 and went to the quarterfinals of the 1948 U.S. Amateur, one step away from an invitation to the Masters.
Funk said his most special victory came in 1955. He was just 20 when he beat Morgan Evans, 3 and 1, in the City Tournament 36-hole finals at BCC.
“He was my idol. He was really good,” said Funk. “I was lucky. He topped it in the crick on 17, and that was it.”
Whether competing against Evans, Doc Morgan, John Brokaw, Shepherd or teenage phenom Phil Aldridge and later watching Niepagen, Brad Barker and Mike Milligan, Funk has witnessed about all of the Twin Cities’ rich golf history.
“I always thought the best player was Hal Stone,” said Funk. “I think (Tom) Kearfott has more talent than anybody. I shouldn’t say this, but it appears now that I would say the best player is Todd Mitchell.”
Funk hasn’t played golf in about four years, but is getting the itch — and encouragement from close friends — to get back out and give it another try.
Those playing in this weekend’s Medal Play would be wise to heed Funk’s advice.
“You’ve got to just pay attention to yourself,” he said. “You can’t worry about anyone else unless it gets down to two or three guys at the end. I always like match play because you could go 3-3-12 and be 1-up. If you play like that in medal play you could be six shots down.”
You can play
Signup continues at Highland Park for Saturday’s qualifying round, with 52 entered as of noon Wednesday. Tee times will close at 11 a.m. Saturday. Cost is $65.
The low 32 and ties will be in the championship flight, with other flights consisting of about 16 golfers each.
The championship flight’s second round will be at The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course on Sunday morning. The low 18 will advance to a final round Sunday afternoon at BCC. Those in other flights will play their second round Sunday at Highland Park.