Rod Funseth: Golfer Who Won After He Was Supposed to Be Dead

Rod Funseth was a PGA Tour golfer from the early 1960s into the late 1970s, winning three times and coming close at The Masters. Then he burst onto the senior circuit in his 50s. But in his early 50s, Funseth succumbed to an asbestos-caused cancer. He still managed to win a senior tournament, though, after doctors had already predicted he'd be dead.

Full name: James Rodney Funseth

Date of birth: April 3, 1933

Place of birth: Spokane, Washington

Date and place of death: September 9, 1985, in Napa, California

His Biggest Wins

Funseth had three wins in PGA Tour tournaments:
  • 1965 Phoenix Open
  • 1973 Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open
  • 1978 Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open
He also won the Northwest Open, a PGA section tournament, in 1964. Funseth won the Confidence Open in 1973 and the Spalding Open in 1977, which were actually the same tournament — the one that is today named the TaylorMade Pebble Beach Invitational.

On the Champions Tour, Funseth had one official victory:

  • 1983 Hall of Fame Tournament
He also won two non-tour senior tournaments, the 1983 Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf (partnered by Roberto de Vicenzo) and the 1984 Unionmutual Seniors Golf Classic.

In the Majors

Funseth's first appearance in a major championship was in the 1965 PGA Championship, and his last in the 1982 U.S. Open. He tied for eighth place in that 1965 PGA, which remained his best major-championship finish until the 1978 Masters.

At Augusta National in 1978, Funseth carded a second-round 66 that moved him into a tie for the 36-hole lead. Following a 70 in the third round, Funseth was tied for second with Tom Watson, three strokes behind Hubert Green. Funseth played in the final pairing on Sunday, and it appearaed the final round would be a daylong struggle between Funseth, Watson and Green.

And in fact, those three did battle — they all finished at 10-under 278, Funseth closing with a 69. But they tied for second place. Forty-four-year-old Gary Player, who started the final round seven shots behind Green, closed with a record-low, final-round score of 64 (tying the tournament's then-overall 18-hole record, too) to win by one stroke. Player was, at the time, The Masters' oldest champ; Funseth, at 45, was a year older.

Funseth played well in the final round and down the stretch, birdying the 15th hole. Then he parred out, just barely missing birdie putts on the 16th and 18th holes. Green and Watson also missed final-hole putts that would have forced a playoff.

Funseth had one other Top 10 finish in a major, a tie for 10th place in the 1977 U.S. Open. He also had Top 20 finishes in the U.S. Open in 1966 (t13), 1968 (t16), 1973 (t20) and 1976 (t11). His only other Top 20 finish in a major was tied for 11th in the 1977 Masters.

More About Rod Funseth

According to his hometown (Spokane, Wash.)) newspaper, Rod Funseth was once clocked as the PGA Tour's fastest player. It was a distinction that Funseth thought might have derived from the fact that as a child he often played on Downriver Golf Course in Spokane after sneaking on near sunset, rushing to get in as many holes as he could before all light was gone. In 1994, a memorial to Funseth was erected near the first tee at Downriver.

Funseth's pro career began after his biggest amateur victory, the 1956 British Columbia Amateur. He turned pro that year and worked for several years as a club pro.

His first year giving the PGA Tour a full-time effort was 1963. Within a year, he had his first runner-up finish, at the 1964 St. Paul Open Invitational. And it wasn't long until his first victory. In 1965, Funseth won the Phoenix Open, beating runner-up Bert Yancey by three strokes. He also finished third in the Canadian Open that year.

Funseth was a solid player but rarely in contention over the next half-dozen years or so. But during the 1972 Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Funseth carded a 64 that was the Pebble Beach course record until 1983.

In 1973, at the PGA Tour's season-opening Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open, Funseth got his second career win. He started that year with four consecutive Top 8 finishes on tour. Off the tour, Funseth won the 1973 Confidence Open at Pebble Beach. (Funseth won that event again in 1977 when it was called the Spalding Invitational, after being runner-up in 1976. Today the tournament is still played and known as the TaylorMade Pebble Beach Invitational.)

Funseth turned 45 years old in 1978, but it turned out to be his best year on the PGA Tour. There was that near-miss at The Masters, and also his third career win. It happened at the Greater Hartford Open, and Funseth won by six strokes.

He finished 1978 at a career-best 28th on the PGA Tour money list. Funseth had Top 60 money list finishes (then the cutoff to avoid Monday qualifying) in 1965-67, 1969-73, 1975, plus 1978.

But Funseth's PGA Tour play, his 50th birthday approaching, faded after 1978. He ended up with 470 career starts on the PGA Tour. In addition to his three victories, he was runner-up five times, third place 10 times, finished in the Top 5 29 times and in the Top 10 at 49 tournaments.

One of those second-place finishes was a 3-way playoff loss in the 1971 Greater Greensboro Open (won by Buddy Allin). He also had seconds at the 1967 500 Festival Open Invitation and 1970 AVCO Golf Classic.

Funseth's PGA Tour career numbers might have been bigger had he ever been able to banish negative thoughts from affecting his golf. It was something he was, unfortunately, known for, and being asked about it often surely didn't help.

At the 1973 Los Angeles Open, Funseth said, "I'm so negative that if I had a 10-stroke lead, I'd be afraid I was going to fall and break a leg." And that was after winning the tournament.

Funseth turned 50 in April of 1983 and was ready for second act: the nascent Champions Tour, founded only a few years earlier. Funseth made his senior tour debut in May at the Hall of Fame Tournament, played at Pinehurst No. 2. What a debut it was: Funseth won his very first Champions Tour event by nine strokes.

At the time, Funseth was just the fourth golfer in senior tour history to win his first tour start. And his 9-stroke win set a 54-hole Champions Tour record that wasn't beaten until 2007.

At the 1983 U.S. Senior Open, Funseth tied Billy Casper at 288, forcing an 18-hole playoff. After 18 holes of the playoff, they were still tied at 75, so they continued into sudden-death holes, and Casper finally won the trophy with a birdie. Funseth had one other win that year, in the unofficial-money Legends of Golf (teaming with Roberto De Vicenzo). He finished fifth on the Senior Tour money list.

But in early 1984, Funseth received terrible news: He had mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs caused by breathing in asbestos fibers. Funseth had briefly worked as a teen in the 1950s in a Navy shipyard, and was exposed there to asbestos. The diagnosis was devastating: Doctors told Funseth there was no cure, and he probably had less than six months of life left.

Funseth determined that as long as he could play golf, he would, and so he went back out on the Champions Tour in 1984. He was losing weight and losing distance off the tee but, remarkably, not only did Funseth compete, he even won a tournament that year — after his doctors thought he would have already died. It was the unofficial-money Unionmutual Seniors Golf Classic, a match-play tournament.

"Him being out there, playing so bravely, just made the rest of us feel very humble and small," said 5-time British Open champion Peter Thomson.

Remarkably, Funseth played 19 Champions Tour tournaments in 1984, and finished in the Top 10 in 11 of them. Funseth was awarded the Ben Hogan Award for Perseverance in 1985 by the Golf Writers Association of America.

But Funseth continued to decline and succumbed to the cancer in September of 1985. He was only 52 years old when he died at home, in his house alongside a fairway of Silverado Country Club in Napa, California.

Funseth is a member of the Washington Sports Hall of Fame and the California Golf Writers' Association Hall of Fame.

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