HOPKINS, Minn. – A slight cringe comes across Hilary Lunke’s face anytime someone mentions the word “fluke” when discussing her surprising 2003 U.S. Women’s Open victory.
Improbable? Yes. Shocking? Definitely.
“Maybe a one-hit wonder,” says Lunke.
Sometimes perception has a way of clouding reality.
Nevertheless, what Lunke – now 34 and retired from tour golf – produced at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in suburban Portland, Ore., 10 years ago can easily be described as miraculous. Look at the career numbers: 115 LPGA Tour starts; one top-10 finish.
It’s almost inexplicable. But that week everything clicked, culminating in Lunke beating Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins in an 18-hole playoff.
Her victory remains one of the all-time remarkable triumphs in USGA history. She is one of three golfers to make the U.S. Women’s Open their lone professional win: Janet Alex (Anderson) and Birdie Kim in 1982 and 2005, respectively, are the others.
Adding to the surreal nature of the story is the fact that Lunke barely even qualified. At her sectional qualifier at Canoe Brook C.C. in Summit, N.J., Lunke opened with an 80. Conditions that day were difficult – the course was wet from recent rain and the greens had recently been aerated. Lunke noticed the high first-round numbers and refocused. A solid second-round 73 was good enough to qualify.
Once at Pumpkin Ridge, Lunke felt an inner peace. Having qualified for the 1997 U.S. Women’s Open as an 18-year-old incoming Stanford University freshman, she was familiar with the Witch Hollow Course.
While most of the media focused their attention on Annika Sorenstam, then the No. 1 player in the world, and a wunderkind 13-year-old named Michelle Wie, fresh off her U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links victory, Hilary Lunke quietly prepared under the radar. Juli Inkster also was defending her title and Karrie Webb sought a third title in four years.
Lunke’s support came from several family and friends in attendance, yet nobody would have blinked had she shot a pair of 75s. The firm and fast conditions, however, made the 6,550-yard, par-71 layout play a little shorter. For the short-hitting Lunke, who often struggled with longer, wide-open venues, this was a welcome sight. A consistently straight hitter with a solid short game, Lunke could bounce shots into the greens.
Rounds of 71-69-68 put the 24-year-old Edina, Minn., native into Sunday’s final pairing with the 23-year-old Stanford, her 2000 USA Curtis Cup Team roommate. Stanford was coming off her maiden LPGA Tour win at the ShopRite Classic a few weeks earlier. Lunke led Stanford by one and the favored Sorenstam, who carded a third-round 67, by three.
Everyone expected Lunke, a four-time All-American at Stanford, to fold under the Sunday pressure. She had never been in that situation, and history did not favor her.
“I kept thinking what’s the worst thing that could happen,” said Lunke. “Everyone expects me to go shoot 80. It helped being paired with Angela.”
But Lunke, who shot a 75, wasn’t alone. Playing one group ahead, Sorenstam came to the 72nd hole, a 502-yard, par-5, with a chance to win. The Swede, however, found trouble with her second shot, one that sailed right into a stand of trees. After taking a drop near the monster board, Sorenstam proceeded to make a disastrous bogey-6. A par would have secured a spot in the Monday playoff.
Lunke watched Sorenstam’s tribulations from the fairway, but was unaware of her score. She came to 18 leading Stanford by one.
When the pair reached the green, Lunke knew what was at stake. When Stanford rolled in a birdie putt, a huge roar went up from the gallery. Suddenly, doubt crept into Lunke’s mind. Facing a 20-foot putt to win the title, Lunke briefly wilted.
“The gravity of the situation hit me,” said Lunke. “I started thinking, ‘Don’t three-putt.’ I made a defensive putt and left it short.”
Robbins, who shot a final-round 69, joined Lunke and Stanford for the 18-hole Monday playoff after all three finished at 1-under 283. The 1995 McDonald’s LPGA Championship winner, Robbins was the only player with a major title. Conspicuously absent was Sorenstam, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed on Monday.
“It was definitely different teeing off with Angela and Kelly than with Annika,” said Lunke. “She probably would have regrouped and slaughtered us.”
Stanford, a relative newcomer, was still a bit naïve about the situation. She recalls driving over the hill to Pumpkin Ridge on Monday morning and seeing all the parked cars.
“I didn’t understand the magnitude of it,” she said recently by phone. “I kind of wish I would have because you just never know if you’ll get that chance again.”
Lunke treated the playoff as another round of golf. She spent Sunday night relaxing at Old Chicago Pizza, a popular chain that had become her hangout that week. A bit superstitious, Lunke wasn’t about to foul up the routine.
“I was surprisingly relaxed,” she said.
It showed on Monday. Lunke was two under through six and turned at 1-under 35, two ahead of Robbins and four in front of Stanford. Things got tighter over the final nine holes. Robbins moved to within one with a birdie-2 at No. 10, but would fade down the stretch, shooting a 2-over 73. Stanford, meanwhile, closed the gap with consecutive birdies at Nos. 11 and 12. A remarkable 35-foot chip-in from greenside rough at the par-4 14th not only pulled her even with Lunke, but tilted the momentum.
They remained deadlocked until a disappointing bogey-5 at the 419-yard 17th hole dropped Stanford one back.
That set the stage for more fireworks at the 18th. Stanford left her third shot on the fringe, 25 feet from the hole. It was déjà vu all over when she rolled in the birdie to produce a roar similar to Sunday’s.
This time, Lunke didn’t wilt.
“I said to myself, I’ve got to roll this one in because I don’t want to play any more golf,” said Lunke.
Reading the downhill left-to-right putt perfectly, Lunke pumped her right fist and immediately celebrated with husband/caddie Tylar.
Penny Homeyer, Lunke’s mom, rushed to the green. “What did I just do?” screamed Lunke.
“You just won the U.S. Open!” said Homeyer.
Robbins, who also birdied the hole, stood by and clapped.
All Lunke could see afterward was the USGA seal on the grandstands. Then she watched her whole career go by in a blur, from her childhood days spent on the putting green dreaming of winning a Women’s Open to barely qualifying for the 2013 championship to crying in the locker room, doubting her talents as a pro golfer.
“I really had my golfing life flash before my eyes,” she said. “I think deep down I knew that was it for me. I knew it can’t get any better than this.
“That was the best I had ever putted. I think I had one three-putt the entire championship. It was such a weird feeling. I could see the line and put it on that line [every time].”
That night, Lunke received a phone call from “The Today Show.” NBC wanted her to take a red-eye to New York. Mentally exhausted and facing a trip to British Columbia for the next week’s Canadian Open, Lunke turned down the request. Looking back 10 years later, she can’t believe she didn’t accept.
So much has changed in a decade. LPGA Tour life has been replaced by being a full-time mom to three young children – ages 5, 3 and 8 months.
Robbins, now 43 and a nine-time LPGA Tour winner, also has retired due to back issues.
Meanwhile, Stanford, 33, owns five LPGA Tour titles, but still seeks that first major. The sting of the playoff loss has lessened with time.
“I just think we were at a time in our lives when we were still really young and happy for each other,” said Stanford. “I think that’s what made that day so much easier for me on my end. I’m happy that she won.”
Stanford and Lunke still run into people who reminisce about that playoff. A smile comes to their faces when people recount where they were watching.
“It’s really cool to feel you were part of a little history,” said Stanford.
Five years removed from her last LPGA event, Lunke doesn’t know how other players look at her victory. Many of today’s stars such as Stacy Lewis, Yani Tseng, reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion Na Yeon Choi and Inbee Park weren’t even on the tour in 2003.
Veteran Rosie Jones, who retired in 2009, once told Lunke that she would trade any of her 13 career titles for the one Lunke won.
“I just know it wasn’t a fluke,” said Lunke. “That wasn’t someone falling all over themselves and I had finished two hours earlier. I knew I had to make a putt to win the U.S. Open. I stood up under the pressure and did it.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.