A great day for women's golf, a better day for Lunke

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. -- So there was Hilary Lunke, five minutes before teeing
off in a U.S. Women's Open playoff ... signing autographs while walking
off the driving range.

During her rounds of 75 Sunday and 70 Monday, knowing the biggest
prize in her sport was at stake, she kept telling herself, ''It's only a
golf tournament. More important things are going on. Stay calm, keep it
in perspective.''

''The fact that I can be here, outside, doing this for a living is an
incredible blessing. No matter how the outcome turned out, I was just
happy with where I was at.''

It turned out well for Lunke, who at 24 won her first LPGA title
Monday. She was somebody easy for the fans to cheer. Same went for her
playing partners, Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins, who finished second
and third and also handled this pressure-packed round with grace and
humor. It was a good day for the sport of golf.

And for American women in golf, as they've had to hear a lot in
recent years about Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and other
international players.

Robbins, a 33-year-old pro, may not be a big name in the overall
sports scene, but she's always been one of the most popular players
among LPGA fans. They enjoy watching her fluid game and admire how she
never loses her cool.

Many were rooting for Robbins on Monday, both for the above reasons
and because it seemed like it should have been her turn. Robbins hasn't
won on the tour since January 1999.

Plus, Robbins never got the moment in the sun she deserved by winning
the McDonald's LPGA Championship back in 1995. That event was played
under the cloud of the Ben Wright controversy.

Not that Robbins really cares about recognition. In the typical
understated style she's known for, she wasn't even on anyone's radar
screen until late Sunday.

''Sure, I'm disappointed,'' Robbins said Monday. ''But I was thrilled
just to have the opportunity to win this week.

''Those girls played some golf today, I tell you what. Anyone would
have had a tough time playing better than both of them did. It was
pretty thrilling.''

Stanford, a fierce competitor with a Texas-sized sense of humor, had
cracked up reporters earlier in the tournament when she described her
one-time job as a carhop at a Sonic drive-in.

''I did not wear skates,'' she said. ''You either saw me on skates, or
you saw your food. It was not at the same time.''

Stanford might have thought she was playing golf on skates over the
front nine Monday, where she was 3-over. She almost came back for the
victory over the back nine, no small feat at this place.

Pumpkin Ridge's Witch Hollow course was 6,550 yards, the longest in
Women's Open history. Because it was so dry, it didn't play all that
long. But it did play really hard.

Pumpkin Ridge opened in 1992, and already has had the Women's Open
twice and was the site of Tiger Woods' third U.S. Amateur title, in
1996. The course has grown and matured; tiny Englishwoman Alison
Nicholas -- all of 5-feet tall -- won the Open here in 1997 at 10-under,
beating Nancy Lopez by one shot.

Sorenstam said before this tournament she'd be very happy to take 10-under this year. Turns out, 2-under through 72 holes would have been
enough. But nobody got there, and the Open went to a playoff for the
ninth time in its 58-year history.

The last playoff was in 1998, a 20-hole showdown between Pak, who won
and has become an LPGA star, and amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, who's more
or less out of high-level golf.

Winning or contending for the Open can be lightning in a bottle.
Chuasiriporn is a bright Duke graduate who seems not to have quite the
desire or focus to play the game. Nicholas, who's won just once since
the 1997 Open, was slowed by injury.

There are other Open champions in the past 20 years who have not been
heard from much again: Lauri Merten in 1993, Kathy Baker Guadagnino in
1985, Janet Alex in 1982.

Then think of this: Lopez, once the most dominant female player in the
world, never won the Open. The current dominator, Sorenstam, won it
twice -- back in 1995 and '96, when she hardly knew what she was doing.
She's become a truly great player now, but has fallen short in the Open
on the final day two years in row.

Where does Lunke fit into that scheme?

''Well, it's tough to say,'' Robbins said. ''She's so young. You've
got players that win the Open and are very successful in their careers,
and some that win and aren't.

''She does hit it very straight and has an excellent short game. And
with our courses on tour not getting any longer anytime soon, she could
possibly do very well.''

Players, such as Robbins and Laura Davies, who can really whack it
when the course allows for that, sometimes are frustrated by LPGA
setups. Yet they would acknowledge what Lunke said: That part of what
makes golf different from a lot of other sports is how many ways you can
be a winner.

In Lunke's case, she had long been saying that if she were ever to get
a win on the LPGA Tour, it likely would come in an Open. Because this
event rewards straight driving and good putting, both of which are
strengths for her. Still, she knew not many would have believed it until
she did it.

''I don't play the game that people would have would have necessarily
picked to win an LPGA tournament, let alone the U.S. Open,'' Lunke said.
''But I believed in myself, I trusted my game.''

Lunke went back to Qualifying school last fall and finished tied for
17th, so she is exempt this season. Otherwise, she'd be spending the
year trying to find places to play golf.

She struggled in Open sectional qualifying, but got a pep talk from her
husband (and caddie for now) Tylar Lunke. She pulled it together and
made the field. Once here, Lunke followed her game plan: hit fairways,
don't try to be something you're not.

She learned the game from her father, Bill Homeyer, while growing up
in Minnesota. She began playing at age 13 -- the same age at which
Michelle Wie made her first appearance at the Open this year -- and attracted
the interest of Stanford University.

Lunke talked Monday about how Tylar was the first person she met when
she got to Stanford, but how they never played much golf together
because he was busy on the men's golf team.

He wanted to caddie for her this summer, before going to business
school this fall. But he actually didn't know that much about her game.

''I had to give him a cheat sheet, how far each club goes,'' she said.
''He adapted to my game really quickly.''

Even her 11-wood.

''He teased me about that for a long time,'' she said. ''He told me it
looks like a garden shovel. But once he saw the way I hit it, he loved
that club as much as I do.''

Lunke used the 11-wood to get herself out of trouble a few times in
this tournament, including Monday. Regardless of how far she hits it, she's
the Open champion and earned a check of $560,000. Coming into this week,
she'd won $69,717 as a pro.

Good timing, as the Lunkes just bought a house last week.

''We don't close until Aug. 15, and we won't be moving until
September,'' she said. ''It's nice now to know that we can make all the
mortgage payments this year, no problem.''

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.