Hilary Comes Home

“What is Past is Prologue.” – William Shakespeare

Channeling “Bill the Bard” seems appropriate for the following stage and scene. The time: July, 2003. The place: Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. The event: United States Women’s Open. The protagonist: A 24-year-old former Amateur champion and one-time collegiate star at Stanford, hailing from Minnesota, sans a top-ten career finish in two years on the Tour, and largely unknown outside of ardent golf circles.

The play: Our heroine begins day four of the storied tournament with a one-shot lead over the field. After finding a fairway bunker with her second shot at 18, she recovers to within fifteen feet of the pin. After her antagonist makes a brilliant 20-foot putt, our leading lady comes up short by mere rotations and a three-way, 18-hole playoff ensues the following day. Playing the course for the fifth time in as many days, the protagonist- having shed one of her competitors- again finds herself on the 18th green with a chance to win after our primary villain has again made a pressure-packed putt. But as this final curtain falls, only one star, Ms. Hilary Lunke, would shine alone on golf’s largest podium.

By knocking in that playoff putt, Edina native Lunke became the first local and sectional qualifier to win the U.S. Women’s Open, just the 14th to make the Open her first LPGA victory, and only the third Minnesota woman to capture a national title (Patty Berg and Jerilyn Britz were the others). In ascending to the title, Lunke exhibited exceptional calm and mettle, cutting her teeth instead of biting her nails. The image of her clenched fist, and her embrace with caddy/husband Tylar Lunke have since become more than just local golf remembrance, rather they are threads of fable-stitched deep into the mosaic of Minnesota sports history.

And while the victory earned her a massive paycheck ($560,000), a “Hilary Lunke Day” declared by Governor Tim Pawlenty, and countless opportunities to further her career – it is the five year-exemption that win garnered that would seem to mean the most to Lunke in modern day.

“As soon as I won the Open in ’03, I immediately thought, ‘Oh my gosh – I’m going to get to play for sure in the U.S. Open at Interlachen in Edina,” Lunke says today from her home in Austin, Texas. “And that’s been an amazing feeling for me. It’s really something that I’ve been looking forward to for a full five years.”

Five years. A measured period of time in life, but a virtual eon in sports. And despite the lingering magic of her win at Pumpkin Ridge, one would be remiss not to recognize the omission of a curtain call in Lunke’s career. In the 76 tournaments Lunke has played since 2003, she has never finished better than with a tie for 42nd in a major, nor with a tie for 22nd in any event.

But those are just numbers, figures. Because in the time since her historic triumph, the woman behind the statistics has been working tirelessly toward bettering a game off the course for which trophies aren’t received and headlines aren’t made.

In 2002, months before her Open win, the former Hilary Homeyer was married to the aforementioned Tylar Lunke, and the two soon set new roots in Austin. Since 2006, she has been a member of the LPGA Executive Committee, serving as Vice President in 2007, and a President in 2008. Early on in her Executive tenure, she gained deserved accolades for anchoring the revitalization of the Tour’s “Big Sister” program that introduces rookie players to veteran mentors. In October of last year, after playing through 25 weeks of her pregnancy, the Lunke’s welcomed daughter Greta to their clubhouse.

No rest for the talented. But what has all this meant to Lunke’s game?

“It’s changed my golf game pretty drastically,” Lunke says of the welcomed responsibilities off the course. “It’s taken a lot of time to devote to serving on the Committee. And when I commit myself to do something, when I take on something as a responsibility, I’m not going to put in half my effort. Inherently, that means something is taken away elsewhere. Perhaps my game has suffered a bit over the years, although not so much that it would make me not want to serve on the committee – it’s somewhat of a small sacrifice.”

“But being pregnant and my new family life has changed things more drastically,” Lunke continues. “Because I wanted to spend more time in that area, I wasn’t able to put in those extra hours with my game. And I think I’ve realized now – trying to come back to the Tour this year – that it did get to the point where it was just too much. Like I said, I don’t like to be someone that can just keep all the balls in the air and just keep on juggling. I want to be able to do the things I do well, and put my full effort in.”

For her Open homecoming, Lunke’s full effort will no doubt be required, both professionally and socially.

“I think it’s going to be pretty nuts,” she laughs. “The fact that I’m coming back with a baby – in that sense it would be overwhelming even if I wasn’t playing in a golf tournament.”

And although Interlachen wasn’t her home course in days of yore, it should be well noted that the track – on which Lunke does have ample experience – does play well into her game. While her lack of length off the tee may prove a minor scoring encumbrance in regard to the course’s Open-record length of 6,789 yards, her driving accuracy could be well-rewarded on the tight fairways. Furthermore, Lunke’s acute short game matches nicely with the leviathan challenge of Interlachen’s famously glassy and undulating greens, which will be set to run at 11 feet on the Stimpmeter for the tournament.

“Interlachen’s a course that I’ve always enjoyed playing,” she says confidently, noting that her husband will again be looping her bag in what has become an Open tradition for the couple. “I just kind of think of it being an old, traditional, tight golf course with sloping, fast greens – which is my favorite style of course to play.”

And so, as before, the Bard’s page begins barren, the scorecards empty, awaiting a heroine’s arrival on golf’s largest stage.

“Of course, I’ve pictured myself winning the tournament countless times,” Lunke concludes, her voice equal parts drive and dream. “Just how incredible it would be to win my second Open in my hometown, with so many familiar faces around. It’s something that I want to do, that I’m striving to do. I’m really going to try to go into it the way I did in 2003 – which is just with an attitude of serenity. I’m just going to try to really enjoy the week and soak it in.”

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