Kennewick golf manager eyes tour after U.S. Senior Open appearance

A Kennewick golf pro is considering joining the senior tour after he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open, held July 7-11 at the Omaha, Nebraska, Country Club.

Lionel Kunka, manager of Golf Universe in Kennewick, missed the cut after he shot a 79 and an 81 in the first two rounds. But it was a rewarding experience and his strong performance against difficult playing conditions prompted his biggest fan to push him to rededicate himself to the sport he played professionally in his younger years.

Kunka, 55, said he may well do it.

With support of his employer Chris Eerkes, who owns the golf business, as well as friend and sponsor Dave Retter, Kunka said he’s giving serious thought to returning to the life of a touring professional.

Retter is pushing him to enter the qualifying round for The Boeing Classic, a PGA tour being held Aug. 16-22 at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge. About 100 players will vie for four spots in the qualifying round on the Monday preceding the event.

“I’m thinking about it,” Kunka said. “Dave wants me to sign up for it and I think I will.”

Retter is president and owner of Retter & Co. | Sotheby’s International Realty, the Mid-Columbia’s largest residential firm. Retter and Eerkes sponsored Kunka’s trip to Nebraska after developing close friendships through their regular golf dates.

Retter liked what he saw in Nebraska.

The man he considers the best golfer in the Tri-Cities missed the cut, but played well under challenging conditions, including grueling heat. He made par even after hitting the rough on several holes, an impressive recovery that might have sidelined a less experienced golfer.

“He did well,” said Retter, who intended to serve as his caddy but had to bow out in the high humidity. “He had a great experience, and he wants to continue on.”

Kunka’s day job is managing Golf Universe, a pro shop with a driving range and a 36-hole putting green. He said business is the best it’s been in 25 years. He credits the pandemic and frustration with being stuck indoors.

“Right now, golf is booming,” he said. “People have money to spend and they don’t want to sit inside.”

Kunka’s career path began with hockey as a kid and continued through college and then eight seasons on the Canadian pro golf circuit before settling in Kennewick 25 years ago with his wife and two daughters, now adults.

As he put it, he swapped the uncertainty of touring for the white picket stability of a family man. He helped establish what is now Golf Universe on Clearwater Avenue in western Kennewick and remained on as its manager after Eerkes of Sun Pacific Energy bought it years ago.

He held onto his pro card and maintains a respectable 2+ handicap while playing a weekly game on local courses, such as Canyon Lakes and Meadow Springs.

Kunka was born in Manitoba and grew up in the Kelowna, British Columbia, north of the Washington border.

He plowed earnings from a newspaper route into a set of left-handed clubs, unusual for a right-hander.

Kunka explained that he found it more comfortable to play left-handed after using an overhand grip as a hockey player as a kid.

He moved to the Tri-Cities for college, playing golf on scholarship to Columbia Basin College. His winning first year attracted attention, and scholarship offers came in from four-year schools.

He chose the University of Nevada, which made the best offer. He spent the next few years in Reno.

After college, he returned to Canada and turned pro, playing alongside professionals who are fixtures on the senior circuit today.

There wasn’t much money from tournaments, but sponsors were willing to take a chance on young players, and the touring pros helped one another. Old hands helped the young ones up. He drove the vast distances to participate in tournaments and qualifying rounds.

“I honestly think I’ve been across Canada 10 times,” he said.

He spent winters in Palm Springs, playing the Golden State and Silver State tours and enjoyed a benefit of his pro card – playing any course, as long as he provided advance notice and respected the property.

The arrangement allowed him to play at Pebble Beach and other prestige spots.

He left tournament life after he married in 1997 and settled in Kennewick.

In time, his routine grew to include playing a regular foursome – with Retter, Mike Lundgren, president and general manager of Canyon Lakes Golf Course, and Dan Melior. The foursome was upended two years ago, when Melior died unexpectedly.

The loss was shocking and shot a hole in the close-knit group, who played together and vacationed together.

Kunka said he was in Palm Desert when Retter called with an idea to honor Melior: “Let’s try for the Senior Open.” Kunka was game and secured support from the golf community at his two regular courses.

He entered the May 17 qualifying event at Riverside Golf & Country Club in Portland, where he shot a 72 and found himself in a playoff for one of two spots.

He lost to a Portland pro, but played well enough to be named an alternate. An official told him he had a 75% chance.

Kunka and his wife decided to travel to Nebraska for the tournament. As an alternate, he could at least be able to play practice rounds. He got word that he was in before they left.

With Retter and Eerkes as sponsors, he packed a dozen purple and blue golf shirts with his sponsors’ logos and almost as many pairs of pants.

He needn’t have overpacked.

In Nebraska, players were greeted and treated like royalty from the moment they arrived at the airport and were handed keys to new Lexus sedans to drive for the tournament’s duration. Aides were only too happy to take care of personal tasks, from dry cleaning to keeping phones charged.

The tournament started well when he birdied on the first hole of his first round. It was strong enough to put him on the leaderboard, tied for sixth place. Friends flooded his phone with images they’d pulled from the Golf Channel, which aired the tournament.

Although he missed the cut, the Tri-Cities delegation considered the Nebraska outing a perfect success and suitable way to honor to their late friend.

To his sponsor, Retter, it showed that Kunka still had a passion and talent to continue on. He called it a great story about relationships, as well as an inspiration for the Tri-Cities.

“I’m all in for Lionel,” he said.

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