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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hull finds a home in Wichita

This is one for the chamber of commerce.

The Australian girl grew up in a beach community and loved to surf. She came to the United States for college and attended Pepperdine, in Malibu, Calif., where students can hear the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing against rocks.

Golf, her passion, has taken her all over the world, to places the rest of us only see on maps.

And yet — yet — Katherine Hull calls herself a Wichitan. If that's not a boost to the city's ego, I don't know what is.

While she was winning the 2001 Women's Amateur at Flint Hills National, Hull stayed with Tom and Cindy Kirk and their two boys. Everyone clicked and Hull continued to stay with the Kirk family when she had a break in golf and school.

"Tom and Cindy are like my second parents,'' Hull said.

And the Kirk's two sons — 24-year-old Ty and 20-year-old Nate — are like brothers. Not too long ago, Hull bought a house on Wichita's east side and she is here about 10 weeks out of the year.

Hull, whose golf career has taken flight and who has more than $2.5 million in career earnings on the LPGA Tour, could live anywhere in the world and she chose Wichita. Makes you want to start an ad campaign, doesn't it?

"The Kirk family is obviously the reason I moved here,'' Hull said. "But I've made some good friends here now and it's where I feel at home. I love the Midwest. I think the people are a lot more friendly here. The lifestyle reminds me of being back in Australia; more laid back.''

Two weeks ago, Hull finished second in the women's British Open, her best performance in a major. She followed up with a fifth-place finish in the Irish Open and will play next week in Portland, Ore. In the week she's off she's in Wichita, chilling.

That's right, a woman who spent years on a gorgeous beach in Australia and in the picturesque community of Malibu is able to chill in Wichita.

"Everybody asks me what I was thinking to move here,'' Hull said. "I'm always asked where I live and when I say Wichita they're like, 'What? Are you serious? What were you thinking.' And I'm like, 'Well, yeah, it's a hidden gem.' "

Hull said she likes "flying under the radar.''

Her Wichita existence — she spends the winter months in Australia, where it's actually summer — is low key. She works out in the mornings, practices golf in the afternoons and maybe spends a quiet evening eating dinner with friends.

"Nothing too fancy,'' she said. "I like to live as normal a life during the off weeks as I can because I don't get to do that on the road.''

And on the road is where Hull spends most of her time. Because of cutbacks in the LPGA Tour, there are only 14 events in America. That means Hull and other pros must find tournaments in other countries to help fill their dance cards.

Later this year, Hull will play six straight weeks in — get this — Alabama, California, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and Mexico.

"Five tournaments in a row is normally my limit,'' she said. "But these are all really good tournaments and I guess I'll have the month of December to recover.''

Hull is playing really good golf at the moment, so she's excited about playing as much as she can. But she admits that motivation and focus are not always there.

In 2006, she and her boyfriend, who was also her caddie, broke up and Hull's game disintegrated. She made five cuts in 22 tournaments and her best finish was a tie for 34th.

"I just took a break from practicing that year and if you're not putting in the hard work, your game is going to suffer,'' Hull said. "I started working with a new coach (Steve McRae) in 2007 and he asked me if I wanted to continue doing the things I was doing or whether I wanted to actually win a golf tournament.''

Motivated by a motivator, Hull gained focus and determination. She was a better player in 2007, but her breakthrough came in 2008 when she finished 13th on the money list and won her first tournament, the Canadian Open. Hull won just more than $1 million that year and has 12 top-10 finishes in the past three seasons.

"Basically, in 2008, I stopped accepting mediocrity,'' Hull said. "I set some goals and challenged myself. As a junior player and college player, I set realistic goals but they challenged me and that's something I enjoyed. I didn't do that when I came out on Tour so I was in limbo.''

Hull is someone who needs to constantly challenge herself because, admittedly, she has a tendency to lose motivation and fall into ruts. Being laid back has its advantages, but it can be a barrier for a professional athlete.

"I got a tremendous boost in confidence after I won a tournament,'' Hull said. "But there were probably spots in 2009 where I got a little casual. I think I'm always going to fluctuate in terms of that. I battle complacency because it's a part of my personality. I'm kind of an all or nothing person.''

Hull, 28, does have four international victories and started this season well in Australia, finishing second in three straight tournaments. She said she is striking the ball as well as she ever has and recently has figured out her putting, which has periodically caused problems.

"It's just a matter of piecing everything together and I think I'm getting close,'' Hull said.

As much as a second-place finish in a major boosted her confidence, Hull hasn't stopped thinking about the shots in the British Open that could have gotten her a championship.

"I hope that tournament kicked me into another gear and that I'll have a strong finish to the season,'' she said. "But when you lose by a shot like I did (to Yani Tseng), you think about what could have been.''

Hull insists the Kansas heat doesn't bother her and she's never been here to experience a Kansas winter. She's never experienced winter anywhere.

"Where I grew up, it doesn't get colder than 40 degrees,'' she said. "This 100-degree weather we're having here — I'd rather it be hot than cold.''

When it's gotten too hot, Hull has always been able to go jump in the ocean. Lucky her.

Well, there are no oceans in Wichita, are there?

"No, but would you believe I have a pond in back of my house?'' Hull said. "So I still see the water every day.''

Chamber? Talk to this woman.

Reach Eagle sports columnist Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or

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