When Kennewick’s Lionel Kunka got the phone call last week — the call that told him he was going to play in the U.S. Senior Open — the first person he called was Dave Retter.
Then the next person they both thought about was Dan Melior — their golfing buddy who unexpectedly passed away two years ago from cancer.
Kunka — with Retter as his caddy — will use Melior this week as inspiration as he competes in the national tournament.
“This is dedicated to Dan,” said Kunka.
It’s all been a whirlwind for Kunka, 55, who is the general manager of Golf Universe in Kennewick.
The left-handed golfer had qualified for the U.S. Senior Open as an alternate in May when he shot a 72 in a qualifying tournament at the Riverside Golf and Country Club in Portland.
That meant that while he wasn’t yet in the main tournament, which begins Thursday at the Omaha Country Club in Nebraska, there was a good chance that enough golfers ahead of Kunka might withdraw and allow an opening for him.
And that’s what happened last week.
Kunka, who hails from Canada, played golf for a season at Columbia Basin College before moving on to the University of Nevada.
After that, he played nine seasons on the Canadian Tour before settling down with his wife to raise two daughters and work at Golf Universe the past 25 years.
Making the U.S. Senior Open field is the highest level he has achieved in golf, and he’s done it with his pal Retter by his side, while using Melior as their inspiration.
Five years ago, Retter — who is a broker and owner of Retter and Company Sotheby’s International Realty in the Tri-Cities — met Melior, a businessman.
“He convinced me to play golf on Wednesday afternoons,” said Retter.
For 40 years, Retter had never considered taking time for himself to golf on an afternoon when he would normally be thinking about selling his next property. But the point was to enjoy life and maybe not work so much.
Retter and Kunka would take on Melior and Mike Lundgren, the owner and general manager of Canyon Lakes Golf Course, every Wednesday in a little competitive golf match.
Then, two years ago, Melior died unexpectedly.
“In April of this year, and with the permission of my wife, I called Lionel, and said in honor of Dan, I think you should try to play in the U.S. Open,” said Retter. “And I told him, ‘I’d like to sponsor you and be your caddy.’”
So Kunka first tried to qualify for the U.S. Open in a local qualifier at Gamble Sands in Brewster. He missed the cut.
Then came the U.S. Senior Open qualifier, where Kunka reeled off five consecutive birdies on the back nine to get into a playoff to earn his alternate status.
He then had to wait six weeks to get the call to learn he was in the tournament proper.
It’s been crazy ever since.
A group of businessmen passed the hat at Meadow Springs Country Club last week to donate $1,000 for the trip. Others have given him golf wear, or donated more cash.
“The people at both Canyon Lakes and Meadow Springs have been great to me,” said Kunka, who has taken numerous phone calls from people wishing him well.
All the while, between the qualifier until now, Kunka has maintained a steady hand at his game.
“What I haven’t done is over-play. But I make sure I always have a club in my hand,” said Kunka. “I try to keep a club in my hand every day, for the feel. And yes, I have been cramming the last week. I shot 71 at Meadow Springs the other day.”
SHOT BY SHOT
As soon as he learned he was in the tournament, Kunka got an email from a caddy who has helped a number of professional golfers to offer his services.
Retter even told him to take the guy on.
“I said ‘Lionel, get a pro. You’re in the show,’” said Retter.
Kunka wouldn’t even think about it.
“No,” he said. “We’re a team.”
Kunka added that Retter knows his game.
Retter, an accomplished golfer and racquetball player himself, isn’t just there to carry the bag.
“I’m working all of those (distance) numbers for him, doing the math so that he doesn’t have to do it all,” said Retter.
Kunka values Retter’s input.
“I use him as a sounding board,” said Kunka. “In golf, less is more. Don’t tell me to hit it here or there. Dave and I keep it light, and do it shot by shot.”
Retter said Kunka knows how to play golf.
“I try to keep him calm and cool. I speak when spoken to,” said Retter. “He’s got to come to me.”
Kunka likes where his game is at right now.
“I think my tempo was good yesterday, and I’m staying focused,” Kunka said Thursday. “I’m also able to forget quickly on what happened the hole before. Right now, I’m good at staying in the moment.”
Retter likes Kunka’s shot-making skills.
“What I see is his ability to make the shot he wants to hit,” said Retter. “His execution is phenomenal. He’s also putting really well.”
Now on the national stage, Kunka obviously wants to play well.
But he wants to soak it all in, too.
“I’m gonna try to enjoy this,” he said. “We get practice rounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and we’re not going to burn ourselves out. Don’t burn the caddy out and don’t burn myself out.”
On Monday, Kunka may play just nine holes, then chip and putt.
“I want to take it all in,” he said. “We’re not gonna burn ourselves out. We want to be there and be ready on Thursday.”
Retter feels the same way.
“This is a lifetime experience thing,” said Retter. “This is a bucket list type of thing for me.”
Kunka quickly interrupts.
“For both of us,” said Kunka. “This is a bucket list thing for both of us.”
And done in Dan Melior’s memory.