Lunke struggles following Open success

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. -- Hilary Lunke would not be surprised if she never won another tournament. After all, her biggest goal upon becoming a professional golfer was to win one, any one. The fact that she captured the U.S. Women's Open was the stuff of dreams.

With that victory, however, came a certain level of expectation, a sense from Lunke and those around her that she needed to live up to the accomplishment.

Lunke sure didn't look like a fluke in winning the tournament in an 18-hole playoff last year at Pumpkin Ridge. But it would be difficult to view it any other way today as she prepares to defend her title at the Orchards Golf Club.

Before her glorious week at Pumpkin Ridge outside of Portland, Ore., Lunke had never contended in 22 LPGA Tour starts. Ditto for the 24 events since. She earned $560,000 for the victory but earned $654,660 overall last year. This year, she has earned just $25,430 to rank 110th on the money list.

"Everyone I know and people I don't know can see how I'm performing at my job," Lunke said. "My salary is published in the paper. Some people recognize that it's tough, but others think that we live this glamorous lifestyle, so when we play poorly, they aren't afraid to tell us. It can be hard, definitely.

"I just don't determine my self-worth based on how I played golf. To a certain extent, you want to try your hardest and perform as well as you can, but at the end of the day, golf isn't all that I have to my life. That helps give me some balance, and when I'm playing poorly, it helps me keep my confidence and my spirits up."

Lunke, a former golfer at Stanford, had to return to the LPGA Tour's Qualifying School after the 2002 season because she failed to earn enough money to keep her playing card.

Then she had to endure two stages of qualifying just to make the U.S. Women's Open field.

Once there, she scrambled her way around Pumpkin Ridge. In the playoff, Lunke got up and down 10 of 11 ties and needed just 23 putts.

It was the surprise of the year in women's golf, and started a trend of no-name major championship winners. Ben Curtis, who had never finished among the top-10 in a PGA Tour event, won the British Open two weeks later. A month after that, Shaun Micheel won the PGA Championship, his only victory to date.

Lunke, like Curtis and Micheel, is struggling to show that it wasn't a fluke.

This year she has made five of 11 cuts and missed the passed two. Her best finish is a tie for 36th on May 2 in Atlanta.

For Lunke, it helps having some perspective.

"I am the same person and the same player that I was at this time a year ago," she said. "I wasn't a person who was expected to go out and win major championships. But I respect the position I'm in and making sure I'm working as hard as I can to defend my title."

Five Things To Watch
1. Tiger Woods goes for his fourth victory in eight years at the Western Open. The defending champion, however, has just one victory this year.

2. While 16 teenagers, including Michelle Wie, tee off at the U.S. Women's Open, Annika Sorenstam, 33 hopes to add the title to the two she already won in 1995 and 1996.

3. Casey Wittenberg, the low amateur at the Masters, makes his professional debut at the Western Open.

4. The Western Open is a mini-qualifier for the British Open, with the top player not already exempt earning a spot. Also, it is the culmination of a money race that included the Players Championship and the last five tournaments.

5. The Champions Tour is at the Long Island Classic, where Jim Thorpe defends his title.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.