Hilary Lunke wins in 3-player playoff

Moments after Hilary Lunke dropped the biggest putt of her life, tears of joy dropped from her eyes.

CLIFTON BROWN

Hilary Lunke is quite emotional, naturally, after winning the U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Oregon.-Pic. JONATHAN FERREY/GETTY IMAGES

Moments after Hilary Lunke dropped the biggest putt of her life, tears of joy dropped from her eyes. Who could blame Lunke for being emotional? With her dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of an 18-hole, three-player playoff, Lunke became the first local and sectional qualifier ever to win the U.S. Women's Open. She had never finished higher than 15th in an LPGA event. She barely made it past sectional qualifying. Her career winnings before this event totalled $69,717.

Yet, there was the 24-year-old Lunke on the 18th hole at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, tearfully hugging her husband and caddie, Tylar, and celebrating a one-stroke victory in the national championship, after 90 holes and five days that tested her game and her resiliency. Shooting a one-under-par 70, in the first women's Open playoff since 1998, Lunke won by one stroke over Angela Stanford and by three strokes over Kelly Robbins, who bogeyed three of the first four holes, and made a double-bogey at No. 14.

Holding a master's degree in sociology from Stanford University, Lunke passed every test, including the final exam, sinking the winning putt for birdie, moments after Stanford had tied her by making a her own pressure-packed 20-foot birdie putt. Endings don't get much better — back-to-back birdie putts on the final hole of a major championship. Stanford played like a champion. But Lunke became a champion, ending a memorable tournament with a magical putt.

"I can barely even remember hitting the putt,'' said Lunke, after winning $560,000, and instantly moving into a higher tax bracket. "When it took off my putter, I knew it had a great chance. When it had about three or four feet to go, I didn't know if it was going to break. It started curling in, and I said, `Just go in.' And it went right in the centre.'' Perhaps no one outside of Lunke's circle of family and friends expected this ending when the tournament began. But Lunke had a powerful weapon that carried her to victory — a terrific short game, including a smooth putting stroke that looked oblivious to pressure. Lunke only hit eight greens in regulation during the playoff, and she only hit six greens in regulation. Yet, she only needed 23 putts the next day, including the last one that sealed the victory. So many times, Lunke got up and down in key situations, and she never made worse than a bogey through 90 holes of intense golf.

"The short game is by far the best part of my game,'' said Lunke, one of the shortest hitters in the field, who carries her driver about 210 yards in the air, and carries an 11-wood, a 9-wood, and a 7-wood in her bag. "I don't think I chipped and pitched much better than I normally do. It's just that almost every putt went in under 10 feet. I made almost everything the whole week.''

It came down to Lunke and Stanford on the par 5, 502-yard 18th hole, with Lunke holding a one-stroke lead, and Robbins three strokes behind. Both Lunke's and Stanford's second shots were short of the green. From 50 yards away, Lunke pitched onto the green, 15 feet below the hole. Stanford's third shot wasn't as good, stopping shorter than she wanted, and leaving her a 20-footer from the fringe of the green.

But Stanford, a tenacious 25-year-old Texan who won ShopRite LPGA Championship for her first victory, had been in this spot before. On the same green, Stanford needed a 20-footer for birdie just to get into the playoff, and she made it. She couldn't do it again, could she?

"In any sport, people just want to see excitement,'' said Stanford. "They want to see the dramatic and they want to see the impossible. And that putt today that I made on No. 18 was impossible.''

It wasn't impossible, but it was special. Reading the putt perfectly, Stanford watched in amazement as the ball tracked toward the hole, the crowd noise grew, and the ball disappeared into the cup. Stanford held out her hands in disbelief, knowing she had given herself a chance to extend the playoff.

But then it was Lunke's turn. She showed no emotion after Stanford's putt went in the hole, studying her upcoming putt intently, determined not to be shaken, while the crowd was still going crazy.

"I had an immense feeling that she was going to make that putt,'' said Lunke.

"Yesterday, I don't think I was quite as prepared to hit my putt in response,'' she said, referring to having left a 15-foot putt for birdie on the final hole a foot short. "I learned a lot. I kind of locked in, and just said, `Forget it. You've played great all day.Let's knock this in.' ''

That's exactly what Lunke did, becoming the first player to make the Open her first career victory since Annika Sorenstam did it in 1995. Everything seemed to fall in place for Lunke at this tournament. Her husband doesn't normally caddie for her, but he will begin business school at the University of Texas this fall, and decided to take some time off this summer and accompany his wife on the road. Both Hilary and Tylar played collegiate golf at Stanford, and Hilary felt calmer with her husband on the bag.

"Even if he can never come out and caddie for me again, we'll always have this to look back on together,'' said Lunke.

The couple bought a house in Austin, Texas, and with Lunke's winnings, the mortgage payments will not be a problem.

"When we were looking for houses last week, I said, `Even if I go out and win the U.S. Open, I'd still want this house,''' said Lunke.

"I just threw that out there. I can't believe it's true.''

Lunke is a native of Minnesota, took up golf when she was 13, and became a collegiate star. But the transition to professional golf hasn't been easy. Lunke made only $30,509 on tour last year, forcing her back to qualifying school last fall, where she earned her tour card for this year. Despite those struggles, Lunke believed she had the accuracy and short game to play well here, and she was right. Just as importantly, she had the nerve. Lunke was the most confident player in the playoff from the start, jumping to a four-stroke lead over Stanford and Robbins after six holes.

Then, when she was tested, she responded. She made a superb bogey on the par 5 No. 7, after hitting her tee shot into deep rough, and barely advancing the ball on her next swing. Her next shot went into the left rough, leaving Lunke with a difficult fourth shot off a downhill lie, still about 170 yards from the green. From there, Lunke showed her hand-eye coordination, taking almost a baseball swing with an 11-wood, and advancing the ball almost to the green. Lunke chipped and putted to make bogey, avoiding a disastrous hole.

Another test came at No. 14, when Stanford chipped in for birdie from 35 feet to tie Lunke at even par with four holes left. Stanford was making a move, and Lunke knew it.

"When she chipped in on No. 14, I knew I was in trouble,'' said Lunke. I thought right there, maybe this is her day.''

But Stanford made a crucial bogey at the par 4 No. 17, hitting her second shot into a greenside bunker, blasting to 12 feet, then missing the putt. That gave Lunke a one-stroke lead heading to No. 18. And a few minutes later, she made the putt that will change her life.

"When I saw my mom come over, she kept saying, `I can't believe it, I can't believe it,''' said Lunke. "And I said, 'Neither can I.'''

The scores: final: Hilary Lunke, $560,000, 71-69-68-75 — 283; Kelly Robbins, $272,004. 74-69-71-69 — 283; Angela Stanford, $272,004, 70-70-69-74 — 283; Annika Sorenstam, $150,994, 72-72-67-73 — 284; a-Aree Song, 70-73-68-74 — 285; Mhairi McKay, $115,333, 66-70-75-75 — 286; Jeong Jang, $115,333, 73-69-69-75 — 286; Juli Inkster, $97,363, 69-71-74-73 — 287; Rosie Jones, $90,241, 70-72-73-73 — 288; Grace Park, $79,243, 72-76-73-68 — 289; Suzann Pettersen, $79,243, 76-69-69-75 — 289.

U.S. Open women champions 2003 — x-Hilary Lunke 2002 — Juli Inkster 2001 — Karrie Webb 2000 — Karrie Webb 1999 — Juli Inkster 1998 — y-Se Ri Pak 1997 — Alison Nicholas 1996 — Annika Sorenstam 1995 — Annika Sorenstam 1994 — Patty Sheehan 1993 — Lauri Merten 1992 — x-Patty Sheehan 1991 — Meg Mallon 1990 — Betsy King 1989 — Betsy King 1988 — Liselotte Neumann 1987 — x-Laura Davies 1986 — Jane Geddes 1985 — Kathy Baker 1984 — Hollis Stacy 1983 — Jan Stephenson 1982 — Janet Anderson 1981 — Pat Bradley 1980 — Any Alcott 1979 — Jerilyn Britz 1978 — Hollis Stacy 1977 — Hollis Stacy 1976 — x-JoAnne Carner 1975 — Sandra Palmer 1974 — Sandra Haynie 1973 — Susie Berning 1972 — Susie Berning 1971 — JoAnne Carner 1970 — Donna Caponi 1969 — Donna Caponi 1968 — Susie Berning 1967 — Catherine LaCoste 1966 — Sandra Spuzich 1965 — Carol Mann 1964 — x-Mickey Wright 1963 — Mary Mills 1962 — Murle Breer 1961 — Mickey Wright 1960 — Betsy Rawls 1959 — Mickey Wright 1958 — Mickey Wright 1957 — Betsy Rawls 1956 — x-Kathy Cornelius 1955 — Fay Crocker 1954 — Babe Zaharias 1953 — x-Betsy Rawls 1952 — Louise Suggs 1951 — Betsy Rawls 1950 — Babe Zaharias 1949 — Louise Suggs 1948 — Babe Zaharias 1947 — Betty Jameson 1946 — Patti Berg

x-won:18-hole playoff; y-won sudden-death playoff after 18-hole playoff.

New York Times News Service