LINKS LETTER, 2003 ANNUAL EDITION

FLIGHT OF FANCY

By Jeff Hopper

Even the Cardinal women’s golf team, sitting down to semester exams last spring, might have been stumped by the question: Who is Hilary Lunke? After all, when Lunke graduated from Stanford two years earlier, she had been the unmarried Hilary Homeyer, and up till then she had not exactly given her old teammates much to take note of in her fledgling career.

But now, with fall giving way to winter and another round of finals in waiting, it is a test nearly all of us could pass.

Not only that, but we could tell you more than a little about Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel as well. We have become well-versed in glass slippers and those who wear them.

What the trio of underdogs meant to golf this summer cannot be exaggerated. And Lunke is among those who have not allowed the meaning of their accomplishment to slip quietly past.

“I think it’s fabulous for golf,” she said a few weeks ago after the kind of exhibition pro-am to which she is receiving eager invitations these days. “I think it’s an exciting prospect for fans that somebody who’s out there who is literally an unknown player can come out and win the biggest tournament in golf at any given moment.”

That is, of course, what Hilary Lunke did that Fourth of July weekend plus Monday. Nine-wood, eleven-wood, and putter in hand, she walked away with the United States Women’s Open. No, she walked away with the United States Women’s Open, the one that Hall of Famer and television analyst Johnny Miller called “the greatest win I’ve ever seen in golf.”

That’s no small endorsement.

But then, Lunke’s was no small accomplishment.

With Annika Sorenstam breathing down Lunke’s neck on Sunday afternoon, the Minnesotan knew that what was shaping up was more than a little serious. But she did everything she could to keep herself from believing it.

“I was trying to concentrate on what I do everyday,” Lunke remembers, “just hitting the fairways, getting it up there near the green, and trusting my short game. I was just trying to completely take the other competitors out of it and pretend like I was out there on any Sunday playing any round.”

This wasn’t any round. And when Lunke came to the eighteenth tee that Sunday, Sorenstam was relinquishing her potential shot at the title by sailing her go-for-it 4-wood into the trees right of the green and ending with bogey.

But out in front of Sorenstam and Lunke, Kelly Robbins had made birdie and found herself the clubhouse leader, tied with Lunke, one ahead of Angela Stanford.

If there is one thing we remember other than all those putts falling at the eighteenth green, it is that Hilary Lunke is no big hitter. We waited with a hacker’s compassionate breathlessness when she had to carry her second shot on the par-5 eighteenth over Pumpkin Ridge’s yawning thicket of native fescue. The ball made it over the worst stuff but fell into the fairway bunker, 90 touchy yards from the green.

Lunke, you’ll also recall, does have touch. And when she landed her approach 18 feet below the hole, the championship appeared to be hers for the taking. A makeable putt to win.

Meanwhile, Stanford stood there lining up a 20-footer of her own. She had to have it for any chance at a playoff. And have it she did, with a true roll and a shout of elation.

Now, as Lunke lined up the putt, like she had lined up thousands in her junior, collegiate, and brief professional career, she was taking aim at her first LPGA win–amazingly, the biggest possible win on the women’s side of the sport.

She missed.

Not that that was any great shame. No such putt of that length had ever been made to win any U.S. Open on the 72nd hole. Stanford was beyond happy just to have made such a putt to tie.

“Regardless of what happens tomorrow,” Stanford said after the round, “I’ll always have that putt.”

They would have been words laden with perspective if they hadn’t been even heavier in portent. For, oh what a tomorrow was waiting! For the first time in 16 years, the Women’s Open was headed to a three-way playoff.

When Hilary Lunke arrived at the Pumpkin Ridge’s Witch Hollow course on Monday, she came with nothing new on her mind. Again, her husband Tylar would be on her bag. And again, they would try “to keep things light and joke around.” It was part of a formula that had worked all weekend, according to Hilary.

“We were saying Scripture back and forth, singing some of our favorite songs. Over and over again, we kept saying, ‘It’s just golf, it’s just golf. No matter what happens this is an extremely small part of our lives.’ That’s what we tried to focus on.”

The plot needed no aid, for compared to Sorenstam, the Hall of Famer-to-be who had missed the playoff, all were relative unknowns. The win would change the golfing life of any one of them.

But among them, Lunke–who had changed her name within the preceding eight months, who was actually more likely to miss a green than hit one, who had not made $60,000 in her entire career prior to this day–was the least heralded of the underdogs.

And it was Lunke who went to the front, stretching her lead to three over Stanford and five over Robbins. But that was before the turn–and before Stanford rolled in birdies at eleven and twelve and chipped in another at fourteen.

On the tee at the seventeenth, Stanford and Lunke were both at even-par. With Robbins three back, Lunke’s strategy had changed.

“On Monday, a little bit at the very end, I kind of switched into match play mode with Angela. I was concentrating on what she was doing a little bit more,” Lunke says. “For 16 holes, honestly I was saying, ‘OK, I’m out here playing golf and I’m paired with Kelly Robbins and Angela Stanford.’ That gave me a lot of comfort and kind of helped me put things in perspective as well.”

If Stanford was thinking the same thing, she found herself dormied, one down with one to play, after she missed the green at seventeen and made bogey. She also found herself where she had been the day before, needing birdie at the last to tie.

Which means that Lunke found herself in familiar territory as well. So she went back to her biggest thought of the week: This tournament was not hers to win.

“I was able to conduct myself the way I did at the U.S. Open because I didn’t see it so much as myself going out there and winning it or losing it,” she says. “I was completely calm because I knew the Lord was in control. If He wanted me to win, great, and if He didn’t, great.”

It was the kind of deference that would have made a lot of players very uncomfortable. It kept Lunke at ease.

This time, Lunke’s second shot landed on the fairway and she left her wedge just 15 feet below the hole on the right side of the green. Her clean play eliminated any miracle for Robbins, who did finish with a birdie of her own. But for Stanford, who tentatively left her 40-yard approach 25 feet from the hole on the fringe, there was one last chance.

Lunke saw it that chance as a certainty. “I knew she was going to make that putt,” she has contended since that afternoon. And make it Stanford did, this time voicelessly, in open-mouthed shock at her own repeated magic.

Here Lunke stood again, five or six paces from the hole, this time with meaningful right-to-left break in the putt. Lunke’s eyes locked onto the line, she took the putter back, brought it through with that impossibly even tempo of hers, and sent the ball rolling.

The putt started at her feet and ended in that paradoxical convergence between the bottom of the cup and the top of the world. Hilary Lunke, nobody’s pre-tournament pick, had won the U.S. Women’s Open.

Perhaps more surprising than Hilary Lunke’s remarkable win at the Pumpkin Ridge is that she does not consider it remarkable at all. After all, it’s what you dream of when you start early in the game.

“When you’re a little girl growing up, you think about winning the U.S. Open,” Lunke explains. “I don’t know if that’s the case necessarily for all players around the world, but I know that as an American player, that’s what we think about. For me, just getting in that situation, it was kind of one of those things where it almost felt like you’d been there before, because you’d practiced so much, this is the putt to win the U.S. Open, that kind of thing. Maybe that had some effect on it.”

Lunke gives a large chunk of credit to her parents for supporting her in the game. Her father, Bill Homeyer, started her in the game when she was 13.

“He trusted my game more than I did even, when I was first playing,” Lunke says. “He was just so encouraging to me as a player, and so complimentary of my putting and my mental game. That’s what ended up helping me win was the fact that I could grind it out and that I could make those putts.”

Bill and Penny Homeyer encouraged Hilary right into Stanford, where Hilary’s closest friends were her husband Tylar and teammate Stephanie (Keever) Louden, who plays with Hilary on the LPGA Tour.

Louden’s encouragement included a spiritual aspect that had been only introductory to Lunke growing up.

“I grew up in a family where we went to church, but I never really had accepted Christ or understood the whole relationship and what it meant,” says Lunke.

After reading Left Behind during her junior year, Lunke began to ask some new questions. “I thought I had read the Bible. I said, ‘How could I never have known that this was a possibility, that this was how the world could end? I need to look into this and figure things out.’ ”

That was when Louden stepped in.

“She invited me to a fellowship group at school,” Lunke says. “I started going there, asking a lot of questions and found that I was getting answers for every question I had.”

Yet Lunke continued to wrestle with a matter common to most people, if seemingly uncharacteristic for an accomplished golfer whose favorite golf memory prior to winning the Open was sinking a 6-footer to cinch the Curtis Cup for the United States. Lunke struggled with doubt.

“I still struggle with it,” she admits.

“I think I was waiting for the day when the doubt went away and then I could say I was a Christian. Some friends finally said to me, ‘That’s not going to happen. Every minister out there, everyone has times when they doubt. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t doubt. It means you’ve committed your life to this in spite of the doubt, and then when you have doubt, you go to Him and ask Him to help you through it.’ That was the point when I finally said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”

Actually, it was a joint decision Hilary and Tylar made. “We made the decision together that we wanted to live our lives for God and commit ourselves to God,” Hilary says.

Now come the lessons in responsibility. The months following the Open have been full, and Lunke’s golf has suffered (she had made only two of her next eight cuts by the end of October). But that is to be expected, as others who made the Open their first LPGA victory–Kathy Baker in 1985, Liselotte Neumann in 1987–discovered.

“The pressure is on and the pressure is off at the same time,” Lunke says. “The pressure is off because I have my tour card for the next five years and that’s a wonderful feeling. At the same time, having won, there are more expectations on me now from the fans, from the media. No one can put expectations on you except yourself, but if people start to ask you enough questions, like ‘Why are you playing so poorly since the Open?’, it can start to affect you mentally. I’m learning how to deal with that and sort of move on since the Open.”

Part of what allows Lunke to stay grounded though she is still just 24 is the way that she reflects on that Open win. She tries to remember how little of the focus was on herself.

“I think more than anything what I took out of that week was the focus I had on God and how much I was relying on Him. Since then, I think in a lot of ways you say, ‘Oh, I did this now.’ You kind of start straying a little bit, thinking, I can play golf, I can win championships.

“That happens a little bit, but I try to start saying to myself, ‘You didn’t do this. God’s what got you through that.’

“If He doesn’t want me to win another tournament, there’s nothing I can do about it. If I rely on Him and give my life completely to Him, there’s no end to the blessings that He can bestow upon me.”

In Christ, Hilary Lunke has already been given one blessing she knows will never end. It’s a far blessing greater than her win at the U.S. Open.

COPYRIGHT 2003 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Hilary Lunke

    1 LPGA Tour Wins (one major): 2003 U.S. Women’s Open