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Surprise winner

Hilary Lunke's dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on the final playoff hole makes her the first qualifier to win the Open.

Associated Press
Published July 8, 2003

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. - For 90 holes of the U.S. Women's Open, Hilary Lunke remained cool. There was no flashiness to her persona, no fist-pumping pizazz. Calm permeated her performance at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

She convinced herself that each day offered an ordinary round of golf, and she acted accordingly.

Only when it was over - after she had made a dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on the last hole Monday to win an 18-hole-playoff and the championship - did Lunke make it clear that the week had been far from ordinary.

Lunke shot 1-under 70 in the playoff to outlast Angela Stanford, who shot 71, and Kelly Robbins, who shot 73, then thrust her fist into the air, removed the designer sunglasses that helped hide her emotions all tournament, and hugged everyone in sight.

She yelled, laughed and cried, five days of suppressed emotions spilling out.

"I can't believe it! I can't believe it!" her mother said.

Not many could.

No one had won the most prestigious prize in women's golf as a qualifier. In 22 events on the LPGA Tour, Lunke had never finished better than 15th.

"It was a huge relief to finally let it all out," Lunke said. "I'm just in a daze. I feel like I have to come back tomorrow. I feel like the tournament is not over."

Lunke, Stanford and Robbins were tied at 1-under 283 after 72 holes and came back Monday for the ninth playoff in Open history.

Lunke came to the last tee with a one-shot lead over Stanford and was three ahead of Robbins. Showing the calm of a veteran, she hit a perfect drive on the par-5 finishing hole, followed with a perfect layup and knocked her approach to within 15 feet.

"It was important to keep my emotions in check," Lunke said. "If I was just out playing a round I wouldn't be pumping my fist or screaming and yelling about made putts and good shots so that's what I did. It was a battle, me fighting myself."

Robbins, needing eagle on the last hole, went for the green but missed left with her second shot. When her eagle chip ran past the hole, it was down to Lunke and Stanford, who had hit her third shot into the fringe just short of the green, 30 feet from the hole.

Stanford went first and, as she had done on the final hole Sunday to get into the playoff, stroked in a birdie putt that forged a tie with Lunke. Unlike Sunday, however, when Lunke missed a potential winning putt of similar length, she made hers.

"I've heard that roar twice for Angela," Lunke said, referring to Stanford's two long birdie putts on the final hole Sunday and Monday. "It was nice to hear it for me."

It was a defining moment in the career of the 24-year-old from Minnesota. Before Lunke's gutsy performance here, even the most avid golf fan would have had a difficult time picking her out of a lineup. With a master's degree in sociology, she was best known as the most educated player on the LPGA Tour.

Not many would have picked Lunke to win the tournament, and less would have given her a chance in the playoff against Robbins, a nine-time LPGA Tour winner, and Stanford, a winner June 29 tour. But Lunke, who had not won as a professional, now holds the most prestigious title in women's golf.

"I didn't really need other people to believe in me," Lunke said. "I just needed to believe in myself." Especially in her short game.

Lunke hit only seven greens in regulation Monday, but needed only 24 putts to complete her round. She made three par-saving putts of 5 feet or more and made bogey putts of 6 and 8 feet. For the tournament, Lunke hit 48 of 90 (53 percent) greens but averaged 26.8 putts and did not make double bogey or worse.

"Her short game was very, very impressive," Robbins said. "She got up and down from all kinds of places. She did what we all hope to do and that's pull it off when we need to."

Stanford struggled for much of the front nine Monday and made the turn in 39 - four shots behind Lunke. A birdie on the par-5 11th, however, was followed by birdie on the 12th, then she chipped in for birdie on the difficult par-4 14th to pull even. But Stanford's bogey out of a greenside bunker on 17 gave Lunke the lead heading to the final hole.

"I figured if I could just hang around and keep it at 2 or 3 over and I could fix my swing, I'd still have a shot," Stanford said. "And I finally started hitting some good shots."

Lunke set the tone early. On the first hole, she missed the green to the right and chipped out of the thick rough to within a foot and saved par. Robbins and Stanford made bogey and Lunke took a lead she did not relinquish.

After up-and-down pars at Nos. 2 and 3, Lunke chipped in from the back fringe for a birdie on No. 4 and took a three-shot lead without having hit a green in regulation. She made the turn with a two-shot lead over Robbins, who would fade with bogey on No. 11 and double bogey on 13.

The trophy shining on the stage in front of her, Lunke looked out at a room full of reporters, smiled and said, "How many of you thought I would win?"

No one can doubt her now.

MEET HILARY LUNKE

BORN: June 7, 1979; Edina, Minn.

RESIDENCE: Palo Alto, Calif.

PRONOUNCED: LUN-key.

ROOKIE YEAR: 2002.

STATUS: Exempt.

CAREER-LOW ROUND: 68.

2002 EARNINGS: 10 events, $30,509.

PRE-U.S. OPEN 2003 EARNINGS: 12 events, $39,208.

U.S. OPEN EARNINGS: $560,000.

EDUCATION: Stanford University (2001, economics/psychology; 2002, master's in sociology).

2002 HIGHLIGHTS: Best finish a tie for 15th at the Wendy's Championship for Children at Tartan Fields. Returned to the LPGA final qualifying tournament, where she tied for 17th to earn exempt status for the 2003 season.

PERSONAL: 5 feet 7 started playing at age 13 married Tylar Lunke on Nov. 2, 2002 competed as Hilary Homeyer in 2002.

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