The Champions Tour is in the stretch. This week's Boeing Classic kicks off the final third of the 2010 season.
The 18th tournament on the 26-event schedule will answer some key questions:
• Can Fred Funk, returning to fitness again, make a move to claim a post-season honor or two?
• Can Fred Couples get back into the winner's circle in the friendly confines of the TPC Snoqualmie Ridge in his home state of Washington?
• Is Michael Allen's runner-up finish at the JELD-WEN Tradition a precursor?
Funk has been a signature star on the Champions Tour since his arrival but some physical problems -- most recently, knee replacement surgery -- have sidetracked golf's straightest hitter.
But Funk returned to familiar ground by winning the JELD-WEN. It's the third straight year he's won a Champions Tour major and the second in three years at JELD-WEN.
How he achieved the feat is more telling. He hit fairway after fairway after fairway -- 52 out of 54 for 96 percent. What that means is Funk is back in his element and playing the game as he knows it. Straight down the middle.
"I thought somebody would go out there and get to 13- or 14-under," Funk said. "But they didn't.
"I didn't think, coming down the stretch, that 12-under was going to be the winning number."
Funk reached that number with a birdie at the 16th and made two pars coming in, both on what he described as "super-long two putts." It was enough for victory.
"A lot of work, a little bit of luck," Funk said. "I didn't think one birdie coming down the backstretch was enough but I'm taking it."
Funk had "a real hot streak" last year.
"Phenomenal stretch there," he said. "Four weeks played really well. Then my legs just went and my game went."
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What followed next was the replacement surgery on his left knee on Nov. 16. He has played through the discomfort and pain. There wasn't a clear indication until last week when he returned to impeccable form with the driver that Funk is almost all the way back to being one of the Champions Tour's marquee performers.
"I'm getting to the point I can concentrate on my golf swing instead of my knee," he said.
"I knew it was going to come around. I didn't know it would turn into a win but I'm glad it did."
With the victory, Funk moved into fourth place on the Charles Schwab Cup standings . He still has less than half the total points of Langer, who leads, but it's a start.
"I didn't even think I was close to that," Funk said. "It's nice to be back in contention and playing good. I'm hitting lot of quality shots. I feel I'm going to hit quality shots instead of bad shots."
The other Fred is looking for his first victory since March when a torrid start to his Champions Tour career looked like he was unbeatable.
If Funk is in his element with the driver in his hand, Fred Couples is in his element at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge, east of his hometown of Seattle.
Couples has slipped to second on the Charles Schwab Cup points list and money list but is certainly capable of turning that around with another streak the kind of which he put together to start -- a runner-up finish and three straight victories in his first four starts.
And there is no better place to start it than in Washington where the galleries this week will be solidly behind a favorite son.
Allen, the 2009 Senior PGA Champion, started the year focused on the PGA TOUR. After a solid start on the West Coast, things began to unravel midway through the season.
Now his goal is to play well enough through the final Champions Tour events he will enter to earn full-time privileges for 2011.
"There's a great opportunity for me out here," Allen said after his runner-up finish. "I haven't played that many. I don't know which ones are more fun than others. I look forward to next year and playing a lot more.
"I'm going to play through Korea (on the Champions Tour) and hoping to have enough money to be set for next year. Then I'll play the Fall Series and get my status there, top 150, hopefully 125. But I've got three more weeks out here and I'm looking forward to it."
After the Boeing Classic, the Champions Tour moves to Pebble Beach for the First Tee Open before inaugurating a new event, the Posco E&C Songdo Championship in Songdo City, Korea, at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club. After a week off for travel across the Pacific comes the SAS Championship in Cary, N.C.
Champions Tour Insider notes: • The JELD-WEN Tradition marked Bob Gilder's 47th consecutive major championship on the Champions Tour, the longest current streak in that category.
• Tom Kite, the only multiple winner of the Boeing Classic (2006, 2008), will attempt to do something he's never done in his PGA TOUR career - win the same tournament three times. The feat was last accomplished by Jim Thorpe who claimed the 2003, 2006 and 2007 Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
• The TPC Snoqualmie Ridge is the third of four TPC courses to host official Champions Tour events in 2010.
• Not since Craig Stadler won five times in 2004 has a Champions Tour golfer reached that number of victories. But Langer, with four victories already this year, has a chance to do it.
• Langer is one of four Champions Tour players to earn back-to-back Player of the Year honors. He is seeking to become the first to earn the award for the third year in a row. The three players to do it back-to-back: Jim Colbert (1995-96), Hale Irwin (1997-98) and Jay Haas (2006-07).