2004: Lunke’s life great, but her game isn’t

By Jay A. Coffin

Funny how a ticklish 15-foot, right-to-left breaking birdie putt can change your life.

With the calm of an LPGA veteran, Hilary Lunke sank that birdie putt to capture the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open, producing arguably the most unlikely victor in women’s major championship golf. After dodging Annika Sorenstam and a host of others through 72 holes, Lunke outdueled Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins to win the championship on the final hole of an 18-hole Monday playoff.

Twelve months later – as she nears her title defense July 1-4 at The Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass. – Lunke still has difficulty believing she won the cherished crown.

“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Lunke, who collected the largest check in women’s golf ($560,000). “I’m still shocked and excited about the whole thing.”

Lunke, 25, heard all week at Pumpkin Ridge that she lacked distance off the tee (she ranked 57th in that category out of the 59 players who made the Open cut) and that she wasn’t proficient enough at hitting greens in regulation (she ranked 26th).

But determination has a strange way of hiding deficiencies.

Her key to victory was scrambling and putting. In the playoff, Lunke hit only eight greens in regulation, got up-and-down 10 of 11 times and needed only 23 putts. Only Mhairi McKay took fewer putts than Lunke for the week. Add Lunke’s 23 playoff putts to her 110 putts over the first four days and the total was only two more than Jamie Hullett’s 131, which ranked last in the field. Lunke averaged 26.6 putts per round and 1.48 putts per hole.

“I would be very content to have one week that I could always look back on as my special week,” Lunke said. “To have that week come at the Women’s Open and the fashion it happened with the playoff and coming down the stretch with Annika (Sorenstam) is pretty incredible. If I never win another tournament in my life, I’ll feel fulfilled.

“At the same time, I am going to do all I can to make sure that I can do something like that again. It was the greatest feeling that I have ever had in my life.”

Lunke’s journey to the title was 2003’s feel-good story in women’s golf.

After a stellar college career at Stanford, the Minnesota native nearly quit golf in 2001 until she learned she could enter LPGA Qualifying School as an amateur. Lunke earned nonexempt status, but had little success in 2002, making only $10,509 in 10 events. So she plodded back to Q-School for one last go-round. The second time, Lunke earned exempt status for 2003 and was able to select her own schedule, a much more relaxing option than she had the previous year.

Still, Lunke had to play through two stages of qualifying to earn her spot at Pumpkin Ridge, the first Women’s Open winner to do so.

Much has changed over the last year for Lunke, who leaped from the unnoticed to the top of the charts in a single bound. She and husband/caddie, Tylar, used the Women’s Open winnings to buy a new home in Austin, Texas, so Tylar eventually can seek a master’s degree at the University of Texas. The two have traveled the world thanks to the opportunities afforded them by her victory. The media requests have been overwhelming for the engaging Lunke, who would rather do an interview than turn someone away.

Unfortunately for Lunke, her golf game is still the same.

Entering the 2003 Open, Lunke had played 12 events and missed seven cuts. After the Open, she played in 13 events and missed six cuts. Through the McDonald’s LPGA Championship this year, Lunke has missed five cuts in 10 events and earned only $25,430, placing her 105th on the money list. She shot two sub-70 rounds to win the Women’s Open (71-69-68-75 and 70 in the playoff) but has broken 70 only four times in 66 rounds since.

Through 46 LPGA events as a professional, Lunke still has only one top 10, linking her with Ben Curtis on the PGA Tour, who has a similar record since winning last year’s British Open (one top 10 in 18 events).

To Lunke’s credit, her only top 10 was a victory at the U.S. Women’s Open, the event she and her father, Bill Homeyer, always dreamed Lunke would win.

At The Orchards next week, Lunke’s dream comes full circle.

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