- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Only when Hilary Lunke saw her 15-foot birdie putt break sharply to the left and head for the center of the cup did she grasp the magnitude of her victory yesterday in the U.S. Women’s Open.

No one had ever 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.

And on the longest course in U.S. Women’s Open history, she was among the shortest hitters, unable to reach some greens with a fairway metal.

In a three-way playoff at Pumpkin Ridge, Lunke surprised everyone but herself.

“I don’t know how many people knew about my game or knew about me,” she said. “I didn’t need other people to believe in me, but it was important that I did.”

The final stroke was her best of the day, a 15-footer for birdie just moments after Angela Stanford holed from 30 feet for birdie from just off the green that made it look like an 18-hole playoff wouldn’t be enough to find a winner.

Stanford got into the playoff with a 20-foot birdie Sunday on the final hole, but she never got another chance for more heroics.

“I’ve heard that roar twice for Angela,” Lunke said. “It was nice to hear it for me.”

Lunke was overcome with emotion when the ball disappeared, thrusting her arms in the air and sobbing as she hugged her husband, then breaking down again when she saw her parents.

“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!” her mother said.

Not many could.

Lunke missed a 12-foot birdie putt Sunday with a chance to win. Unfazed, she boldly said that her first victory would be a U.S. Women’s Open.

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.

The birdie putt gave her a 1-under 70, one stroke ahead of Stanford and three shots better than Kelly Robbins.

Lunke became the first player since Annika Sorenstam in 1995 to make her first LPGA victory the U.S. Women’s Open. And at 24, she became the youngest American to win a major since Jody Rosenthal, also 24, at the 1987 du Maurier Classic.

She overcame her short tee shots with a masterful short game, taking only 23 putts over the final 18 holes.

“I did not have 100 percent of my ball-striking,” said Lunke, who hit only eight greens in regulation. “But I had 150 percent of my putting.”

Stanford, who trailed by four shots with 10 holes to play, pulled off more magic by chipping in for birdie on the 14th hole to finally catch Lunke. Her only mistake on the back nine cost her the victory.

From the 17th fairway, Stanford pulled her approach into the bunker, blasted out to 10 feet and missed the par putt.

Her last hope was a birdie on the par-5 18th, and that looked unlikely when Stanford’s second shot went into the rough and she chipped just short of the green. Coming off her first LPGA victory last week, Stanford was through.

“I knew she was going to make it,” Lunke said. “I had the same feeling I had yesterday. I said to myself, ‘Be ready to make it on top of her.’ I can’t believe I did.”

Stanford, twirling and pumping her fist, cleared the way for her former Curtis Cup teammate.

“I knew the kind of line she had,” Stanford said. “I didn’t get my hopes up too high. She put it on top of me. That’s just awesome.”

Lunke won $560,000, the biggest check in women’s golf and dwarfing the $69,717 she had in career earnings coming into Pumpkin Ridge.

Lunke is no threat to replace Sorenstam as the best player in women’s golf. She is a short hitter, but that was no problem on the 6,550-yard Witch Hollow course.

Not with her short game.

Lunke, who has a master’s degree from Stanford, could make a living giving putting lessons, and her wedge game was equally stout.

Whenever the pressure was at its peak, Lunke always answered with clutch putts. Her birdie on 18 was the ninth putt she made from 5 feet or longer.

“If she was ever going to [crack], I would never have known,” Robbins said. “She was into her game and she knew what she needed to do. And she did what we all hope to do — pull it off when we need to.”

Robbins, a major champion with nine LPGA victories, had experience and momentum on her side after closing with a 69 on Sunday. She recovered from a bad start to get within one shot, only to see her hopes end with a double bogey on 13.

Lunke looked as if she might remove all the drama from the first three-way playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open since 1987. Despite relatively easy pin placements, all three women struggled at the start, only Lunke thrived.

Lunke didn’t hit a green in regulation until No.6, where a 20-foot birdie putt moved her to 2 under and gave her a four-stroke lead.

Robbins and Stanford didn’t let it get any worse.

Robbins was wild off the tee and started with three bogeys on the first four holes, getting back into the mix with three birdies, including a 4-footer on No.10 that brought her within one shot.

It looked like Robbins might leave the 10th green in a tie, but Lunke saved par from the bunker with an 8-foot putt.

Stanford, shaky off the tee and with her putter, fell to 3 over when she missed the green to the left on No.8 from the fairway.

She didn’t make another bogey until 17, which ultimately cost her a chance to win.

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