In the Moment

Twenty years ago, Hilary Lunke won the U.S. Women’s Open, and it still resonates in her life today.

June 30, 2023 | 4 min.
By Joseph Oberle
Photos by Matt Seefeldt

Hilary Lunke stood on the final green of the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open 18-hole playoff—after witnessing her opponent drop a would-be tournament-tying, 27-foot putt from off the green—with a 15-foot putt to win her first title on the LPGA tour. Crowds pressed against the ropes surrounding her, and Johnny Miller, rapt behind his microphone, stared down alongside unblinking cameras from the NBC TV tower. 

Good memories, right?
For Lunke, the former Minnesota state high school champion and Stanford University golfer 20 years removed from that day at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Oregon, the emotions of the moment have not faded. Lunke drained the 15-footer (only her 23rd putt of the round), pumped her fist heavenward in exhilaration and screamed in, perhaps, relief.

“The feeling of the final putt to win was more of exhaustion,” Lunke says. “I remember thinking, ‘I cannot continue this level of intensity for 90 holes, for each shot. Let’s roll this in and be done.’

“I could see the line, and an overwhelming feeling came over me that Angela [Stanford] was going to make her putt and I’d have to make mine. So, I just flipped into match-play mode, thinking ‘don’t even look at her!’ I wasn’t distracted at all. I just thought ‘I’ve got to make my putt’ and . . . it was just crazy.”

Lunke became the first qualifier to ever win the Open. She hadn’t won an LPGA tournament coming in—and didn’t win another as a pro. Lunke flashed across the LPGA firmament, besting then-two-time champ Annika Sorestam, who finished one-stroke out of the 18-hole playoff. And the victory prompted descriptors such as “unlikely” (from Miller who called it “the greatest win” he’d ever seen) and “improbable.” Lunke has heard them all—and she gets it. Just don’t call it a fluke. 

“I would be the first to admit that it was improbable,” Lunke says. “I only get a little bothered when people call it a fluke. To me, it was not a fluke. I had to make that putt and I made it. I was tied for second after the second round. So, it’s not just like I went out in the morning and shot a score and everyone else fell all over themselves the rest of the day and, somehow, I was the winner. I had to hit those shots under pressure for a sustained amount of time, so it wasn’t a fluke! I prefer to call it a ‘one-hit wonder.’”

Fluke is inaccurate. And while “one-hit wonder” may be more apt, its connotation of a “flash in the pan,” from “out of nowhere,” catching “lightning in a bottle” is not. Any deeper-than-clichéd examination of Lunke’s career and life reveals something else: a talented, driven and mentally strong athlete who put herself in a position to capture the biggest title in women’s golf—and seized the moment.

The Straight and Narrow
Hilary Lunke was not groomed early to be a major golf champion. She was a very competitive swimmer and softball player before turning to golf relatively late—not playing her first 18-hole round until age 13. Lunke had caddied for her dad, MGA rules official Bill Homeyer, and played the occasional causal nine-hole round. She didn’t play for her high school team of Edina until her sophomore year, eventually winning one individual state title in 1997 and two team titles in ‘95 and ‘97. But things changed when she started competing against her teammates.

“My teammate Kalen Andersen—who went on to play collegiate golf and is the head coach of women’s golf at South Carolina now—we had played softball together as kids and she was just a great athlete,” Lunke says. “By the time I was playing on the Edina team, she was an excellent player and that pushed me. It made me strive to be better.”

She asked her dad for help, and Homeyer showed her the ropes, amazed at her rapid improvement. “When I’d tell her something, she could do it almost immediately. And if you weren’t careful, she would overdo it,” he says.

Not wanting to “screw her up,” Homeyer turned his daughter’s tutelage over to PGA pros Ron Benson (Indian Hills GC) and Marty Lass (Edina CC). They soon realized that coaching the motivated Hilary meant mostly staying out of her way. After shooting 124 in that first 18-hole round, Lunke broke 90 two months later and within 22 months broke 70.

“She became such a good golfer so fast,” Lass says. “Her parents never pushed her. So, for Hilary to improve by that much, you’ve got to have an internal drive. She was a very fast learner and kind of a sponge; she would absorb stuff quickly. A fairly good natural talent, but the internal drive she had was something else.” 

Lass says there were few weaknesses in her game: always a straight hitter, great short game and a very good putter. Her dad tells the story of Hilary with Benson, who asked her “What if you hit the ball here?” and then threw a golf ball in the woods. Hilary responded, “I wouldn’t hit it there.” Benson asked again and got the same response, several times, until Benson said, “OK, you hit an overhanging tree, it took a terrible kick and  landed here, what would you do?” “Then I would just chip out,” Lunke says. She knew her game. 

“She never missed a fairway,” Lass says. “She wouldn’t hit it super long, a couple hundred yards, maybe 220, but it was right down the pipeline. She wasn’t long but, boy, when you’re straight, it’s awfully important—especially in the U.S. Open.”

Major Moment
After becoming a four-time All-American at Stanford and winning two collegiate titles, Lunke earned two runner-ups at the Women’s Western Amateur, won the South Atlantic Amateur Championship and played on the U.S. Curtis Cup and World Amateur Teams in 2000. Lunke turned pro in 2001 and earned her LPGA card in 2003—even though she wasn’t convinced it was the correct next step.

“When I turned pro, I was debating whether or not to do it because—people will laugh at this—I just wasn’t that good,” Lunke says. “It wasn’t like it was an obvious choice for me to turn pro. My dad was always very encouraging, saying, ‘Hey why not just try? What’s the big deal if you don’t like it or you don’t make it?’ My parents are very positive people and they never made me feel like my performance on the golf course had anything to do with how much they loved me.”

While that doesn’t sound like the fierce heart of a champion, Lunke’s mindset about sports played an important part in her development. As a multi-sport athlete, she credits living in Minnesota and playing the sport that was in season, avoiding burnout and staying in the present.

“It was a huge positive that I’d come out and feel, ‘Hey, it’s golf season, let’s get it on,’” Lunke says. “Let’s maximize this because it’s going to be gone in a few months. I don’t think I would’ve had that hunger to pursue it the way I did if golf was a year-round thing.”

And when the Open rolled around, Lunke’s mindset was the same. 

“I do think that mentality played into it. ‘Hey, here is the opportunity, let’s seize it.’ Let’s be honest, I was never thinking I was going to win the U.S. Open.”

Lass says people don’t always recall how well Lunke played for the month leading up to the tournament. And having recently married Tylar (who would caddie for her at Pumpkin Ridge) before the Open, her personal life was trending up, as well. Add to that a game perfectly suited to a U.S. Open, and Lunke was ready to roll.

“It’s a matter of the right combination of golf course with my game,” she says. “You train yourself to play one shot at a time. I don’t think there was ever a week that I was able to do that as successfully as I did that week. I was almost as surprised as anyone else when it was over that I had won because I was just so disciplined to not get ahead of myself and not think about what it all meant and just play the next shot.”

One shot in particular she recalls was a nine-iron from a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole. Concerned with getting over the bunker lip, Lunke feared she didn’t have enough club to reach the green. With trees right and no margin for error left, the situation required a perfect shot for a chance at making the playoff.

“Honestly, it was probably the greatest shot I’ve ever hit,” Lunke says. “I’ve got to hit it on a rope. I remember backing off the shot and literally praying and thinking ‘I don’t have this shot.’ I backed off to regroup and thought, ‘Okay, God, hit the shot for me.’ And I hit it on a string right at the pin. It went 15 yards further than it should have. I have no idea how it went that far.”

With hands visibly shaking on television, Lunke addressed the next shot, sinking the putt to join Stanford and Kelly Robbins in the playoff, which she won the next day. And then everything began to change.

“It gave me opportunities I never thought I would have to travel the world,” Lunke says. “Golf in general gave me that opportunity to travel and see places, and I did take advantage of that.” 

And for her local travel?

“I bought her a car in April of 2003,” Homeyer says. “And when she won, she paid me back!”

Open Experience
With the Open win, Lunke earned exemptions on Tour but did not achieve the same success (her best finishes include T-28th in the 2004 Evian Masters, T-27th at the 2005 SBS Open at Turtle Bay and T-22nd at the 2006 Wegmans LPGA). In 2007, she started a family, which ushered in the end of her competitive playing days.

Lunke has not really looked back. She and Tylar are raising three girls (Greta, 15, Marin, 13, and Linnea, 10) who became the focus of their mother’s life. During her time away from the game, Hilary saw the shot distances of the players increase and felt returning to form at that level was a daunting prospect.

“I have no regrets about leaving my career when I did,” she says. “I wanted to have a family and it had become difficult for me to compete. I was playing better than I ever had but I was performing worse because the level of competition had risen so much and the [longer, wider] courses were less suited to my game.

"I had to play 100 percent my best game ever just to be scraping by. It became apparent that it was time for me to step away.”

But not completely away from sports. Lunke now plays tennis to stoke her competitive fires. “It’s on a completely different level, but it’s the same feeling of performing under pressure and enjoying the moment even when it’s tense. So, I think maybe if I didn’t have that outlet, I would probably miss golf more.”

She also teaches a bible study class which she greatly enjoys. And she is looking forward to revisiting a club she’ll be a member of for life. 

“The Pebble Beach U.S. Open Champions reunion this summer, when you look at the other names on that list, you think, ‘How am I in this company?’ Wow, what a blessing. I can’t believe I have the opportunity to go do this. I am going to soak it up, enjoy it and be thankful—these are the times that winning versus getting second turns out to be a big deal.”

Regarding other big-name golfers, a Netflix series called “Full Swing” featuring behind-the-scenes looks at last season’s PGA Tour is currently streaming, and the second episode focuses on the juxtaposition between a rising star named Scottie Sheffler and a then-dimming one named Brooks Koepka. We see four-time major (including two U.S. Opens) winner Koepka has suffered several injuries and struggled to regain his form—demonstrating just how transitory success can be at the highest level of the sport. Near the end of the episode, he is asked what’s next for him after yet another failure in a Major, and Koepka looks down, blankly, and answers “I don’t know.” 

Hilary Lunke never seems to struggle with that question.

“It kind of goes back to this mindset of I never try to look too far ahead in the future and put myself on a certain track with an end goal in mind,” she says.

"I just kind of go, here’s where life has me right now, I want to enjoy the moment. I want to take the next right step. And I’ll find out later what road God had me on.

“It is very similar [to playing the Open], and what gives me the peace and confidence about that was the experience I had. If I am in the moment and fully present and just try to be faithful to what I can do right now, I think then you look back and go, ‘Wow, that turned out way better than I expected.’ In a lot of ways that is the way I try to live my whole life. That one-shot-at-a-time mentality. And the U.S. Open experience had embedded in me a willingness to live that way.” 

Joseph Oberle

Joe Oberle is an award-winning author, sportswriter, and has been the managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine since 2002. He’s covered the Minnesota Vikings, the NFL, Minnesota Twins and spent six seasons as publications manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he co-authored “Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan.”

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