Hilary Lunke, 20 years later, still an improbable major champ and still just Mom
Today, Hilary Lunke is living more of the life she pictured.
Two decades since her improbable U.S. Women’s Open triumph, she’s a mother of three, a volunteer bible-study teacher and swings a tennis racquet way more than golf clubs these days.
“My life has changed so much in 20 years,” Lunke told GolfChannel.com.
But one thing has remained the same — she’s still one of the most unlikely winners in golf history. On July 7, 2003, at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Oregon, the 24-year-old Lunke defeated Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins in an 18-hole Monday playoff for her lone professional win — and top-10.
“I’m the first one to admit I was an underdog,” the Minnesota native said, “so it doesn’t upset me whatsoever to hear people refer to it as kind of a wonder; I call it a one-hit wonder.”
Just don’t say it was a fluke.
“That bothers me, just because I don’t see it as a fluke in any kind of way,” she said, “I stood over a lot of shots and knew what I had to do and was able to execute in the moment, and knew what I was doing when I did it.”
The four-time All-American at Stanford University turned professional in 2002; however, she wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the ‘03 U.S. Women’s Open. She made it through the sectional qualifier despite opening with an 80 and then advanced through final qualifying to claim her sixth major start.
By the weekend, Lunke established herself as the Cinderella story at Pumpkin Ridge, with her newlywed husband, Tylar, looping for her. She was T-2 with Stanford and Hall of Famer Juli Inkster following 36 holes, four strokes off Mhairi McKay’s lead. And Lunke began to believe.
“I always said to my dad that if I win an LPGA event, I think my best chance would come at a U.S. Open, for sure,” Lunke said after Round 2.
A third-round 68 gave Lunke the 54-hole lead by one stroke over Stanford, Lunke’s 2000 Curtis Cup teammate and roommate who was one week removed from notching her maiden LPGA title at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.
Lunke got off to a fast start in the final round, rolling in a 35-footer for birdie at the first, but would end up shooting 75. Stanford shot 74 and Robbins, the 1995 LPGA Championship winner, caught them with a 69. Annika Sorenstam, playing in the penultimate pairing, came to the closing par-5 tied for the lead. The world’s No. 1 player, however, sliced her second shot from the fairway into the trees, and after an almost 20-minute ruling, she took a drop next to the scoreboard en route to a bogey.
In the final pairing, Stanford holed a birdie putt from about 25 feet on the 72nd hole, but Lunke still had a chance to win after knocking her third shot from the fairway bunker to inside 20 feet. Lunke’s putt, though, broke left just before the hole, and the ninth Monday playoff in USWO history ensued.
Lunke was four ahead at the turn in the extra session, but Stanford pulled even on No. 14 as Robbins faded with a double on No. 13. Lunke had a one-stroke advantage heading to the 90th hole, but Stanford holed another 25-footer for birdie to send the crowd into a frenzy. Unlike 24 hours before, though, Lunke sealed the deal on the last, canning her 23rd and final putt of the day from 15 feet for a championship-winning birdie.
Lunke raised her right arm as tears fell down her face as she became the first qualifier to win America’s national open. She collected $560,000.
“I did expect her to make the putt on 18,” Stanford said after the playoff. “She left the putt yesterday short … I know what it feels like when you’re putting that well, every time you get over a putt you think I’m going to make this. I know she was standing over this thinking, I know I’m going to make this.”
Twenty years later, some of the memories from those five dramatic days in Oregon have faded, but Lunke’s winning putt, her comfortability on the greens and her bunker shot on the 72nd hole remain crystal clear.
“Things like that feel like they just happenend,” she said, “but yet every time I go out on the golf course, I’m reminded that that doesn’t happen very often and that was a distant memory at this point.”
Lunke became an overnight sensation. She did nearly 50 media interviews in the three days following her win, but four days removed from her magical Monday, she missed the Canadian Women’s Open cut at 9 over.
And her USWO encore would never come.
“I put significant pressure on myself,” she said, “especially the rest of that particular summer.”
Lunke’s triumph put her in contention for a spot on that year’s U.S. Solheim Cup squad, but she didn’t make the team. She’s the only American player since 2000 to win a major and be left off a Solheim Cup roster in the same year.
“I just thought, oh, come on, just do anything else, just get a top-10 anywhere else and you clinch your spot,” she said, “and I didn’t do that.”
Lunke’s victory, though, changed the trajectory of her career — and life — for the next five years.
“Winning kind of put me into a category of eligibility for events that I probably normally wouldn’t have been able to have the privilege to play,” she said.
Lunke felt she was capable of having more success and figured if she could win the USWO, then she could at least top-10 at another event — but she never did.
“You’ve got to play it one shot at a time and that’s how I was able to even win the [USWO],” she said. “And so I was always trying to get back into that mindset, but it certainly did take some, mental gymnastics to try to do that because it’s very easy to get ahead of yourself.”
That victory prolonged her career, but at the end of 2008, she retired from professional golf — with no regrets. And though her triumph at Pumpkin Ridge was the climax of her playing days, the next five years still felt like a fairytale despite her struggles on the course.
“I kind of pinched myself that my husband and I got to travel around the world and spend those years together before we had kids,” she said. “It definitely feels like a former life.”
A mother of three to Greta, 15, Marin, 13 and Linnea, 10, Lunke has seldom touched her clubs after she walked away from the LPGA, playing maybe 18 holes a year.
Now that her daughters are a bit older, that may change.
“They’re at ages where my husband and I can leave for longer stretches of time without taking an act of God to make that happen,” she said.
Lunke, 44, will be eligible for the Legends Tour next year, along with one tournament in particular — the U.S. Women’s Senior Open. Playing in those events has crossed her mind, but it didn’t initially.
“If you’d asked me two years ago, it would have been absolutely no way because like I said, I was playing so little golf,” she said, “but for whatever reason, I do have a little bit of a stirring to get back into the game, just in general, even just to play it more for fun.”
Though Lunke spoke to GolfChannel.com from Marin’s golf practice, her kids haven’t played much. At first, they didn’t know much about their mother’s feat. Hilary and Tylar once tried showing them a VHS tape the USGA made on it, but Hilary thinks they were “bored out of their mind.”
As they get older, however, Hilary Lunke wants to make a scrapbook about her win out of an abundance of articles and news clippings she’s had stuffed in boxes for years.
“I’d like to do that and talk through with them just kind of more of what their dad and I were talking about during the week,” she said, “or how we were unable to kind of live in the moment and be present and things like that, like kind of life learning lessons that they could take out of it, more so than trying to get them to just think what a great accomplishment it was or anything like that, because they really couldn’t care less.”
To them, she’s just Mom. But to most of the world, she’s one of the biggest dark horse major champions ever.
“I still have people come up to me today and say, ‘I remember it, I was following it, I barely knew you and I was rooting so hard for you,’” she said. “So I think in some way, a lot of people do just identify with the underdog.”
Twenty years later, the one-hit wonder is living the life she always wanted, because she’s a mom — not a major champion. But she’s honored and humbled to be living a simple life as one of golf’s most improbable champions.
“If I was able to kind of bring hope to people that week in some way,” she said, “then I just feel privileged to have done so.”