For what it’s worth, sequels hardly ever live up to the original. Drab, superficial, non-provocative comes to mind.
None of that would apply Monday on the Witch Hollow course at Pumpkin Ridge.
In a stunning and epic ending similar to a day earlier, Hilary Lunke staved off a sudden-death playoff after rolling in a 15-footer for birdie on the 18th hole to win the 58th U.S. Women’s Open. Lunke outlasted Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins for her first win, a major no less, as a professional. She carded a 1-under 70 and 2-under total 353.
A clearly emotional Lunke reached for the sky, tearing up with elation. She turned, hugging husband and caddie Tylar, Robbins, Stanford and then her sobbing mother, Penny Homeyer, who yelped into her ear, "I can’t believe it!" three times.
"I’m still in a state of disbelief," said Lunke more than an hour after play had completed. "I can’t believe it happened."
Lunke joined Se Ri Pak as the only other champion to win the U.S. Women's Open with a birdie in a playoff. Pak took the 1998 Women's Open with a birdie on the 20th hole of that year's playoff.
On the verge of completing Monday’s 18-hole playoff, Lunke’s paranormal putt came seconds after Angela Stanford had electrified the gallery with another must-make – this time from 25 feet off the face of the green -- to force the extra hole.
On Sunday, Stanford had to convert on a 20-footer for birdie on No. 18 to have a shot at the playoff. But only if Lunke, who had the final say, missed her 15-footer for the outright victory.
When Lunke two putted, the playoff was on.
Afterward on Sunday, somewhat sullen, Lunke had intimated that father Bill Homeyer and she used to practice two-putting on the final hole to win a Women’s Open when she was little.
"When I saw my dad last night," said Lunke on Monday, "he said, ‘Hey, I told you to two putt when it was a 60-footer, not two putt from 15 feet.’"
Laughter aside, Lunke won against unfavorable odds in more ways than one. Growing up in Edina, Minn., she didn’t start playing golf until 13. The first time she ever played, she shot around 120. Within 60 days she carded an 89. Soon a 79 came. "When I shot the 79," said Lunke, "my mom pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, Hil, I know you broke 100 real fast, and I know you broke 90 real fast, and you sure broke 80 real fast, but it’s going to be a long time before you break 70. Don’t rush it.’"
Soon after the 69 came and Lunke started writing college coaches. Stanford University took a chance.
Lunke became the first qualifier of any kind to win the Women’s Open. (Qualifying for the event didn’t begin until 1976). A 72 at the Aiken, S.C., local qualifer earned her a spot in the Summit, N.J., 36-hole sectional qualifier, at which she nearly bombed with an 80 after the first 18 holes. But shaking off bogey on the first hole of the second 18, she carded a 72 and a place in this year’s event.
Making the tale more delicious is the fact that she almost didn’t play golf this year. As a conditional player on the LPGA Tour last year, Lunke had to go back to Qualifying School when she missed retaining her card by less than $20. Had she not, and she waffled on the decision, the only other way to get back on tour was via the Futures Tour.
It wasn’t an option because that had coincided with her November wedding.
"I had the pressure of knowing that if I missed the cut at Q-School, I was out of golf for a year," said the 24-year-old Lunke.
The round began with Lunke scrambling on the first three holes, going par, par and birdie to get to 1 under. A masterful short-iron game that put her in position to make moderate putts afforded the nerves to dissipate.
Robbins and Stanford quickly fell three strokes behind. Robbins couldn’t hit fairways, and Stanford struggled with the putter.
"I didn’t realize how tired I was until I got out there this morning," said Stanford. "And when I’m tired, my swing is awful."
Said Robbins: "After the first few holes, I was like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve got to concentrate. It’s going to be a long day.’"
By the seventh hole, Robbins awoke, guiding in a 30-foot putt downhill for birdie. It was key because Lunke had bolted to a five stroke lead. But suddenly the advantage evaporated to three when a bad lie out of the left fairway rough took Lunke four shots to reach the green, eventually translating to bogey.
Robbins’ mother Margie, a veteran from watching daughter on the tour for years, was inside the ropes watching. And hoping. "I do hope she plays well, but whatever happens, happens," she said.
As they made the turn, Stanford started coming to life as well, chinking away at the lead. A 12-footer for birdie on the par-5 11th hole brought a furious fist pump. Then Stanford took a step back on the next hole, a cookie-cutter par 3, as the hole absorbed an 8-footer for birdie.
Suddenly Robbins and Stanford were trailing by two, both at 1 over.
Robbins faded on the 13th, a 387-yard par 4, with a double bogey. Robbins ultimately came undone when she couldn’t get out of the right greenside bunker, only getting out 5 feet to the fringe.
"I didn’t have a bad lie," said Robbins, who finished at 2-over 73. "I had no sand where my feet were, and about 10 inches where my ball was. … I hit a poor shot.
"Whether it was the turning point or not, it obviously didn’t help."
Stanford finally caught Lunke at even par on No. 14, a 394-yard par 4 with water that abuts the green. Stanford, 25, went for the fat part of the green, watching as her ball settled in the back rough 35 feet from the hole.
A miraculous chip gave her birdie. A par on the next hole added confidence.
"When I chipped in, I really thought all the momentum was going my way," said Stanford.
Said Lunke: "When she made that chip, I thought: ‘Maybe it’s her day. Maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be.’"
Not precisely. On No. 17, Stanford found the left greenside bunker, setting up a two-putt from 12 feet, and bogey.
Lunke, who caddied for her dad as a kid, walked up the 18th fairway with a one-shot lead on Stanford, three on Robbins. The pressure was mounting, but Lunke wouldn’t have any of it, playing mind tricks on herself.
"I really didn’t let myself fully believe the fact that I was in a playoff to win the U.S. Open until the last putt went in," said Lunke.
As the group waiting to hit on the 18th teeing ground, Stanford had a case of déjà vu. Weren’t the circumstances the same the day before?
"We walked up to the tee and I said, ‘Well, here we are again, birdie to tie,’" said Stanford.
Did someone say Act II?
Stanford, rallying to a 32 on the back nine, laid up 40 yards short of the green in the left rough. She left the chip 25 feet of the hole, just on the fringe.
Her offering starting creeping, curling left toward the hole. Then blackness.
"I hit the best shot I could and thought, ‘Well, I have one last chance, maybe there’s some magic left in this green for me,’" said Stanford. "It disappeared and I thought, ‘I can’t believe it happened again.’"
Said Lunke: "I knew Angela was going to make it. I was like, ‘She’s going to put this on me again.’"
The gallery erupted. A look of amazement dazzled Stanford’s face. She started thinking about the first sudden-death hole, which would have been on No. 13, a par 4.
However, Lunke was focused and told herself to go into match-play mode. She read the line and swung. Pandemonium.
"I can’t even remember the putt," said Lunke.
"For Angela to make that putt, then Hilary to make her putt, I was clapping for Angela, and then I was clapping for Hilary," said Robbins.
For her efforts, Lunke earned $560,000. Good thing, too, because last week she and her husband bought a house. "We know we can pay for it now," Lunke quipped.
As the adage goes, the third time is always a charm. If so, then Pumpkin Ridge didn’t disappoint in its fifth USGA event. In 1996, Tiger Woods was down two with three holes to go before rallying to win against Steve Scott. And in the 1997 Women’s Open, Alison Nicholas fended off Nancy Lopez on -- what else? – the 18th hole for the victory.
Now there is 2003 as one of the most memorable championships in history, with Lunke epitomizing greatness this week.
Or as Bill Homeyer put it, "She has an unbelievable amount of guts, which I believe you saw."