July 3, 2012
Stanford golfers who have won major championships represent some most iconic names in the history of the game.
Lawson Little captured the U.S. and British Amateur titles in 1934 and '35 before winning the 1940 U.S. Open. Bob Rosburg counted the 1959 P.G.A. Championship among his six professional victories. Tom Watson and Tiger Woods have combined to win 22 majors while leaving countless indelible images that are woven into the game's lore.
If asked to name the last Stanford golfer other than Tiger Woods to win a major championship, Watson's victory at the 1983 British Open at Royal Birkdale would be a very astute guess - albeit a wrong one -- by even the most knowledgeable historians of the game.
The correct answer is Hilary (Homeyer) Lunke '01, who defeated Kelly Robbins and Angela Stanford in an 18-hole playoff to capture the 2003 U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge in North Plains, Ore.
It would be her only victory of her professional career.
Though not known as a long hitter by even her own standards, Lunke relied on pinpoint accuracy and her meticulous short game to shoot rounds of 71, 69 and 68 over the first three days at Pumpkin Ridge, which was at the time the longest course in U.S. Women's Open history.
A final round 75 left her in a three-way, 18-hole Monday playoff with veterans Robbins and Stanford. True to form, Lunke drained a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole to secure her first and only professional victory - the 2003 U.S. Women's Open.
She admits getting a pretty good read from her caddy and husband, Tylar, who played on Stanford's men's team in 1998.
With the U.S. Women's Open getting underway on Thursday in Kohler, Wis., Hilary takes a look back at that magical week at Pumpkin Ridge, along with her time at Stanford, in this installment of Forever Cardinal.
What were some of the factors that pointed you to Stanford?
What are some of your favorite moments as golfer at Stanford?
I kind of got into golf fairly "late" in my youth, and I didn't really know if I wanted to turn pro after college, so choosing a school with outstanding academics was at the top of my list. The Pac-10 was also the best conference for women's golf at the time, so I liked the idea of playing against the best. I considered other wonderful institutions for both golf and academics, but something just felt right when I set foot on the Stanford campus. It was beautiful, I enjoyed the classes I got an opportunity to attend, and all the people I met, and just felt like it was the right fit for me, which it was.
Shooting six-under par in the fall Stanford tournament as a freshman (my lowest round ever at the time) and winning that event right off the bat was an amazing feeling. I was also co-champion at the Arizona State event that spring, and I had grown up attending that event as a young girl with my father. I used to watch the collegiate players and dream of someday being able to play in an event like that, so playing in it for the first time and winning it was pretty special.
Also, I think it was my junior year that we came in second at the NCAA Championships as a team -- Arizona was running away with the title that year, so it felt like the tournament was all about who could nudge out the other teams to place second. I remember JaeJean Ro, one of my teammates, sinking a long putt on the 18th green and our whole team running out onto the green to hug her like we had just won!
But even more than these moments of success on the course, my favorite memories are just of our team hanging out together, joking around, riding in the team van. We just had great camaraderie and I will always treasure that.
You earned three degrees from Stanford, including undergraduate degrees in economics and psychology along with a master's in sociology. Tell us about your academic pursuits at Stanford and some of your other favorite memories as a student?
I double-majored in economics and psychology and then co-termed to get my master's in sociology. That sounds ambitious, but it really was more just a function of not knowing what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to get a business background and economics was the closest I could come. My elective classes had basically gotten me a minor in psychology already and I was finding it so interesting that I decided to double major.
I was particularly interested in social psychology and that's what lead me to pursue the master's in sociology. Many times it was hard to be a successful student while simultaneously traveling for golf throughout the year, but my favorite academic memory was having a professor of an advanced course (that I was somewhat discouraged initially from taking because it would be too "intense" for a student-athlete to succeed in) write me a letter after completion of the course commending me for how well I had done in the class and for sort of altering his perception of the intelligence of student-athletes on campus. That was really amazing!
Caroline O'Connor referred to you as the team's fashion and food aficionado. True?
That's hysterical. Love it. I suppose it was somewhat true. I was famous for always bringing fashion purchases to the team and having them weigh in on my decisions. These sunglasses? Or these? Or these? Nothing's changed. I still have my sister help me with these shopping decisions.
I also had some strong opinions on our golf uniforms for tournaments, always trying to get Caroline to make some hip choices for us. And I'm definitely a bit of a foodie, although I'm pretty sure my idea of "good food" has changed a great deal since then. But I was always the one trying to steer the team to the best restaurants in the towns we visited, and making sure we ordered dessert!
You had to advance through local and regional qualifying to gain a spot in the field at the 2003 U.S. Open held at Pumpkin Ridge. You then defeated Kelly Robbins and Angela Stanford in a playoff to win your only LPGA title. Can you share some of your memories of that week?
It was incredible! I had always told my dad that if I ever won a tournament, it would be the U.S. Open, but that was IF...it still in many ways just seems like a dream come true. I have so many memories of that week, but probably what stands out the most is just the incredible ability I had that week to simply play the game of golf. I wasn't worried about the money, or the title, or any of the other distractions that so frequently come into our minds when we're playing competitively.
It was truly an entire week of playing the game one shot at a time and really enjoying it above all else. I hate to say that I didn't care whether I won or not, but it was almost like that. Earlier that season I had gotten bogged down with the pressures and finances of playing on Tour, and I had really sort of hit rock-bottom emotionally less than two months before I won. I remember my dad talking with me at an event in Los Angeles that spring and telling me I had to just get back to playing it as a game, forgetting that I was doing it for a living. He had always encouraged me to keep the game fun, and that was something I needed to keep doing even as a professional, nothing needed to change. It really spurred me on to some success the weeks leading into the Open, and then obviously that week exceeded even my wildest imagination.
So many things about that week were special: having lots of my former teammates there playing and watching, my husband caddying, being in Portland which is one of my favorites cities, the weather was incredible, playing at Pumpkin Ridge which is where I had played my first-ever U.S. Open as a 16-year old. It was just truly a fun week, something I wish I could have replicated somehow in every tournament I played.
You aren't known for being a long hitter, yet Pumpkin Ridge was one of the longest courses in U.S. Women's Open history. What was the key to managing your game that week?
It's true that it was one of the longest courses, but the ground was really firm. That is so helpful to me in my game because it not only increases the distance of your shots, but it places a greater premium on accuracy, which is my strong suit. I am not the longest hitter, but I'm known for being straight, and when the ground is firm, that's much more important. Even though my playing competitors were all outdriving me, that wasn't really a big deal. What really mattered was keeping the ball in play, and having an excellent short game. When the ground is as hard as it was, you're going to miss a lot more greens than you usually do, and my chipping and putting is what really won me the championship that week.
After spectacular rounds of 71, 69 and 68, you shot a final round 75, leaving the door open for Stanford and Robbins. What was your mindset that allowed you to come back with a 70 in the playoff?
It's funny to see it spelled out round by round like that; I totally don't look back on the week in that way in terms of numbers. I really only saw it shot by shot. I guess looking at the scores like that it seems like I opened the door with a 75 in the final round, but the scores were really high that day for the most part, so 75 wasn't as bad as it sounds.
As for the 70 in the playoff, it was really just a clean slate that day--nothing that I had done in the previous four rounds mattered at all. We were all starting out on equal footing on Monday. My mindset that day when the three of us teed it up was, "Here I am in the first round of an event, paired with Kelly Robbins and Angela Stanford." I didn't go into it with the mindset of playing "against" them or "beating them to win," that would never be the way I'd look at a normal round of golf, so I told myself not to look at it that way that day either.
In the playoff, Stanford rolls in a 30-foot putt for birdie from the back of the green that made it look like an 18-hole playoff wouldn't be enough to decide a winner. You then followed with a 15-foot birdie putt of your own to win the championship. Tell us about that moment.
I remember when Angela missed the green with her approach shot, thinking for just a moment that was I was going to win the Open by two-putting. But as soon as we approached the green and I saw she was going to be able to putt from where she was, I had an overwhelming feeling come over me that she was going to make it. I just knew it.
The day before when she made a putt on the 18th green, it had sort of caught me off guard and made me less able to focus on my putt. But in the playoff, it was the opposite. I fully expected her to make it, and I was just honing in on my own putt.
Every day of the event, I had had about a 15-20 foot birdie putt that broke right to left and every single day I had left it about six inches short. Obviously the pin was in a different place each day, so it wasn't literally the same putt, but this time I just wanted to make it. I was exhausted!
We had played 90 holes at this point and I really didn't want to entertain the thought of continuing into sudden death. It sounds so funny to think I was just too tired to go on, so let's just end it right here, but that was kind of my mindset! I had putted so well that whole week, I just wanted to roll one more in. All week I had been able to just "play the game" and I wasn't thinking about the fact that I was playing, or potentially winning, the U.S. Open. It was just another day on the course.
But as that final putt went in, my eyes raised and the first thing I saw was the U.S. Open seal on the grandstand behind the green and that's when I finally let myself realize what I had just done. I tell people right then I literally had my whole golfing life flash before my eyes. I mean flash so it's hard to pick apart everything I saw -- from starting out by caddying for my dad as a little girl, to breaking 100 for the first time, to grinding away practicing my short game as it was getting dark on the range at Stanford, to crying in the locker room at a professional event embarrassed at how I was playing. I feel like I was given a gift of seeing for just a moment how all those things had come together to bring me to that moment.
Good things and bad things both, and I got a chance to see how so many things, seemingly unrelated, can be woven together to create something incredible. I can't separate out why a specific thing happened, or what purpose each one served exactly, but just that somehow, some way, everything was used to make that moment possible. My favorite verse in the Bible is Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose," and for me that moment was like a "peek" behind the curtain of how God can take anything that has happened in our lives and bring good from it. I know some people would laugh to think I'm saying God cares that much about golf, but that's not what I'm saying. It wasn't about my winning the tournament necessarily, the tournament just served as a microcosm of life in general. I just see that week as a true spiritual gift to me from God, something He let me experience so that I could catch that glimpse and let it serve as a basis for trusting Him with everything in my life.
Your husband Tylar was on the bag for you that week. Did he give you a good read on that last putt?
I am so thankful that Tylar was caddying for me that week -- what an incredible thing to have been able to share the joys of that week so intimately with him. It's a memory we'll have together forever. We were newlyweds at the time and I was just so happy any of the weeks that he was able to be out on the road with me.
Tylar played golf at Stanford too, so he was definitely able to help me on shots when I needed it. I don't remember specifically if he helped me read that last putt, but I know that he was just an incredibly calming influence on me the whole tournament, and a huge contributing factor in my success that week.
How did your life change after winning the U.S. Open?
In some ways it changed forever, and in other ways it didn't change at all. The fact that here I am, answering questions about it nearly 10 years later, that's something that's changed forever. I still have opportunities to play in certain events, or speak at certain functions, just because I won that week. No one would be asking me if I was just a retired pro that never won.
Sometimes now, several years removed from the Tour, I'll make friends with another preschool mom now in this next phase of life I'm in, and after a few months somehow it'll come out that I used to play professional golf. The next time I see her, she's "Googled" me and can't believe I'm "famous." Ha! That kind of thing is funny.
For the most part, life after the Open was pretty much the same when it came to the important things -- family, friends, my priorities. We had put an offer in on a house the week before I won, and we still ended up buying that same house. The prize money helped us re-paint and buy curtains and furniture and other things we were going to have to put off for a few years, but it wasn't like we were going to suddenly buy a bigger or more expensive house just because we could.
In the year or two immediately following the win, I got lots of opportunities to play around the world, and that was a big change. I knew that my golfing career was never going to be a forever thing, so I took advantage of as many opportunities as I could. Tylar deferred from business school for a year so that he could travel with me, and we went to something like 13 different countries in a year, which was amazing. We spent our one-year anniversary at a Pizza Hut and Baskin Robbins in Korea -- not exactly what I would have planned, but we were going everywhere we could while we had the chance!
But in many ways, life was, and is, still the same. Even back then, I was the same player after the Open as I was before the Open -- that took me a while to really realize and accept. I think a lot of people, myself included, thought that suddenly I should be able to somehow step up my game and be a more regular contender week in and week out now that I had won once. I had never had a top-10 before the week of the Open, and I never had another one again -- nothing changed.
I put pressure on myself, tried to learn to hit the ball farther, tried to somehow force myself into a role now as a "major champion," but it didn't work. I wish I could have just continued to play the rest of that season and my career with the same mindset that won me the Open--one shot at a time. But that's so much easier said than done, which is why that week was so incredibly special.
Do you keep in contact with any of your Stanford teammates?
I do. Stephanie (Keever) Louden was a four-year teammate of mine at Stanford and we were rookies together on Tour. We traveled together for the majority of my career, and even now that I'm not playing any more, I keep in fairly regular touch with her. Both Kim (Rowton) Hall and Salimah Mussani also turned pro close to when I did, so I was able to keep in touch with them a bit as well and still try to.
Facebook makes it easier these days to keep up with the majority of people somewhat, but I'd still love to somehow get the old team(s) back together for a reunion at some point!
Favorite memories of playing Stanford Golf Course?
Shooting 6-under as a freshman in the fall tournament that I won is definitely a highlight. The Stanford course is so tough. I never really came close to shooting that low again there, unfortunately.
But more than any particularly memorable shots or rounds, I look back most fondly at the early morning and late afternoon/evening qualifying rounds we had to play as a team to determine who would travel to various events. At the time it sure seemed unpleasant to have to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning to head out to the golf course, but once we were there, it was just gorgeous. That course has such an incredible atmosphere in the early and late hours of the day when there was hardly anyone else out there playing with us. Sweeping the dew in the morning or watching the sun start to set as we finished up is probably what I remember most.
Toughest hole at Stanford Golf Course?
It depends so much on what season it was - fall or spring. The ninth hole was always pretty difficult. I had a hard time with it until I just committed to always keeping my drive left (even in the first cut of the left rough was fine) and my second shot left (even just left of the green). If you hit it right there off the tee or on your second shot, you just couldn't really recover.
Where is home for you now?
About a year ago, I moved back near my hometown of Edina, Minnesota, with my family after living in Austin, Texas, for the previous eight years. My husband got a job opportunity up here with the company he's with, so it was a good fit since I'm originally from this area. He grew up in Texas but has always loved the Midwest and the seasons, so he's enjoying it so far too...although the fact that we just had one of the mildest winters on record might have helped. We'll have to see how he fares next year!
Tell us about your family. I believe you have two girls.
Yes, Tylar and I have two daughters, Greta is 4 ½ and Marin is 2 ½ , and we're also expecting a third baby this October, so life is about to get pretty crazy! It already is really, but it's wonderful. I've always wanted to be a mom, and family is really important to me and to Tylar.
Besides raising Greta and Marin, what else is keeping you busy these days?
I stay at home with the girls full time, so that's really about all I can handle! I do love to cook, although these days I've had to curtail the gourmet and go for simpler, faster meals. I'm still an avid shopper, and I try to knit and sew on occasion, although again, the time for it these days is just too minimal. I'm in a women's weekly bible study that I really enjoy, but just doing the homework for that seems to take up most of what little free time I have in the day, so I've had to learn to be content putting off my hobbies for a while. I know it's just a season of my life though -- someday I'll have lots of time on my hands to do the things I love and I'll probably be longing to return to the days of when the girls were so little...so I'm trying not to get too frustrated by how little I can accomplish these days!
Are you still active with the LPGA?
Really, I am not at this point. I thought I might play on occasion even with full-time motherhood, just for fun, but the further removed I get from it, the harder it is to go back, even for just a week. It sounds good in theory to still have the opportunity to go play, but when you think about actually going and doing that, it's pretty daunting. Not just to be able to get my game ready, but to deal with the logistics of the travel, lining up childcare while I'm gone...it just seems like too much unless I'm really going to go and try to compete. If I'm going to take a week's vacation, I'd rather go do something else than play in a professional golf event. People ask me all the time if I'm officially "retired, " and I suppose I am. It's been 3 ½ years now since my last event, and I really have no plans for one that I'll play next--perhaps the 2013 U.S. Open (the last of my 10-year exemption into the event) if I decide to be ambitious, we'll see. Never say never, but at this point, I can't really imagine returning to full-time professional play.