Tri-Cities Golfer in the Zone
Exclusive | Tri-Cities golfer got ‘in a zone’ for alternate spot at U.S. Senior Open qualifier BY JEFF MORROW SPECIAL TO THE HERALD (Published By the Tri-City Herald May 18, 2021) Lionel Kunka, the general manager at Golf Universe in Kennewick, earned an alternate spot at a U.S. Senior Open qualifier.
Lionel Kunka admits that if he’s lucky, he might get to play golf more than once a week. It might be two or three times in a week, if he’s playing in a local men’s club tournament But for the most part, the Kennewick man usually averages that one round of golf a week. That’s what happens when you’re the general manager at Golf Universe in Kennewick — too busy running the business and working behind a desk. So that makes it all the more impressive what Kunka did on Monday at the Riverside Golf and Country Club in Portland.
Kunka, 55, fired a par 72 in a U.S. Senior Open qualifier, which tied him with five other men for first place. That forced a six-man playoff that lasted five holes until the dust cleared. When it was over, Brent Murray of Tigard, Ore., and Yong Lee of Auburn, Wash., earned the two automatic berths into the main tournament — set for July 8-11 at the Omaha Country Club in Nebraska.
But Kunka snared the first alternate spot, meaning there’s a good possibility he could also be playing in the main event.
“I asked (the USGA representative) what were the odds of getting in,” said Kunka. “He said they were good, that Senior Tour guys get hurt all of the time.” Out of the field of 91 golfers, Kunka estimates 75 of them have played on some kind of tour — Senior, Hogan, Canadian — at one time or another.
STRING OF BIRDIES Kunka had never stepped on the Riverside course before. What’s worse is he — and all the other 91 golfers entered — didn’t get in a practice round because the club wouldn’t allow it. In the end, though, that might have been a key. No one had first-hand knowledge of the course, and scores weren’t going to be low.
“A lot of guys were irritated that there was no practice round,” said Kunka. “The course played long, had a deep rough, and trees lining the course. I thought maybe I could get one or two birdies, I could do well. But I needed to be patient.”
So with Dave Retter as his caddie — yes, that Dave Retter, broker and owner of Retter and Company Sotheby’s International Realty in the Tri-Cities — Kunka went out and birdied the first hole.
He had pars on the next four holes before trouble set in. A bogey on No. 6, and double bogey on the 187-yard, par-3 No. 7, a par on No. 8, and another bogey on the ninth left Kunka with a front nine score of 39 — 3-over par and on pace for a 78.
He sandwiched another bogey on the 11th hole between pars on both 10 and 12 before something magical happened.
The birdie train arrived.
Kunka reeled off five consecutive birdies — 3’s on the 13th and 14th; a 4 on the par-5 No. 15; a 3 on the 16th; and a 2 on the par-3 No. 17.
On the final birdie, Kunka sunk a 20-footer that was downhill and a bit twisting. “There was a lady caddying for her husband in our group,” said Kunka. “She got so excited, she was jumping up and down.”
Only a bogey on the 384-yard, par-4 No. 18 hole kept Kunka from outright winning the event. But his 33 on the back nine put him in contention, and he knew he did something that rarely happens to most golfers with that string of birdies.
“It’s weird. People say you get in a zone,” Kunka said. “Like a basketball player who sinks his first shot and can’t miss. You get in this little bubble and you kind of feel invincible. I got into that zone.”
Afterward, Kunka and Retter sat around for five hours and waited for the rest of the field to come in. Then, the six golfers went out and played a sudden-death playoff that went five holes and lasted 90 more minutes.
FORMER PROFESSIONAL Kunka, a left-handed golfer, comes from Canada. But he played one season at Columbia Basin College before earning a golf scholarship to the University of Nevada in Reno. After that, he played about nine years on the Canadian Tour.
“I still hold course records in Edmonton and Quebec,” he said.
But after his stint in the Canadian Tour, Kunka came back to the Tri-Cities, where’s he’s been running Golf Universe for the last 25 years. He’s married and has two grown daughters.
“I loved my time playing on tour,” said Kunka. “But it comes down to a choice sometimes between that and the white picket fence and the family.”
He still has fun competing in tournaments — even with the older guys.
“We were on the driving range, and I thought the last yardage sign said 240 yards,” Kunka said. “I wasn’t sure I could hit my driver there. Another guy said it was 260, and a third guy said it was 220.”
The joke is a youngster with better eyes than these 50-to-60-year-olds said the sign said 275. Kunka qualified for two Ben Hogan tournaments that were at Meadow Springs Country Club in Richland back in the 1990s. But getting into the U.S. Senior Open tournament proper would top that.
“I feel good about it,” said Kunka. “It’s tough to play at a high level, especially when you only play once a week. The guy said there could be a 75 percent chance I could get in. A lot of times the alternates get the call.”
Kunka will make sure to have his phone close to him these next seven weeks.