THE FUTURE OF GOLF HAS TAKEN ON A WHOLE NEW FACE IN the past year or so. The most obvious example. Tiger Woods, doesn’t look like a traditional golf hero-and certainly doesn’t play like one. In his first pro year, he blasted past the competition to win the Masters with a better score and the largest margin in history.
And Tiger Woods is not golf’s only bright hope. The drive into golf’s future also is being shaped right now by Dallas natives Justin Leonard and Kelli Kuehne.
Both Leonard and Kuehne have that alluring and ever-popular Dallas combination-youth, good looks and wealth. Leonard’s just 25; Kuehne turned 20 in May. Leonard made Cosmopolitan magazine’s recent ranking of eligible sports bachelors, and Kuehne sports a large diamond engagement ring. Leonard has won almost $2 million in nearly three years, while Kuehne recently signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Nike.
Like Woods, neither Justin Leonard nor Kelli Kuehne may be your father or mother’s favorite old golf hero. But like it or not, they are the future of golf.
JUSTIN LEONARD: The Will to Win
DESPITE HIS QUIET, CLEAN-CUT, CONTROLLED style, don’t doubt for a minute that Justin Leonard would not stare daggers through you on the golf course en route to grinding you down over the course of 18 holes.
Leonard, who grew up in Lake Highlands and led the Wildcats to a state golf title, debuted on the PGA TOUR in 1994 following a stellar amateur beginning at Dallas’ Royal Oaks Country Club and the University of Texas that was capped with a victory at the 1992 U.S. Amateur Championship at Muirfield Village, Ohio.
Last June, he won his first tournament as a professional at the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. He also played a role in the U.S. team’s victory over an international team at the President’s Cup last fall, just outside Washington D.C., with First Golfer Bill Clinton in the crowd.
Both on and off the course, Leonard uses his stoic control to get him through any problem or daily routine.
“1 try not to have crises,” he was once quoted in a national sports magazine.
Thai’s what drove him to fax his daily practice plans to his sports psychologist while in college, what causes him to make up his bed every day whether at home or on the road and insist his sister do the same when she moved into his Turtle Creek townhome.
Leonard not only models the Polo Ralph Lauren clothing line, but ranks players on the PGA TOUR by their play and their style of dress (“Steve Elkington has a pair of alligator shoes that are beautiful. Some guys just know how to put things together; others don’t.”). He’ll pick the lint off an interviewer’s golf shirt in the middle of a sentence or that of his golf instructor in the middle of a lesson.
“Drives me absolutely crazy,” says his longtime teacher and friend Randy Smith, the head pro at Royal Oaks Country Club, who sometimes plays an “Odd Couple”-like Oscar Madison to Leonard’s Felix Unger.
“We’re a whole family of neatnicks,” Leonard’s father, Larry, says proudly.
A recent fishing trip Smith and Leonard took to East Texas was a prime lesson in Leonard-style “Control 101.” Smith told Leonard he would come by his townhouse on the way to East Texas, load the gear and take off for some new fishing holes outside of Van Zandt County. Leonard quizzed Smith on what time he would arrive, how long the trip would take, where they would go once they arrived, the prospects for good fishing and when, exactly, they would return.
“He does like his control,” Smith said wryly.
But it’s precisely that type of control that has allowed Leonard to become one of the fastest rising stars on the Tour.
Only fellow Generation Xer David Duval has won more money than Leonard ($1.7 million) in an initial two-year span. Leonard earned $943,140 in prize money alone last year, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars in endorsements from Polo Ralph Lauren, fashion watch Ebel, Hogan clubs, Titleist balls and the Kiawah Island, S.C., resort.
“He definitely represents the younger generation,” said Leonard’s agent, Vernon Stratley. “Polo-he’s their kind of guy. He’s got those schoolboy looks and tremendous potential as a new breed of golfer.”
Larry Leonard, an executive vice president with Lab Corporation of America, started Justin off with a cut-down 5-iron. Former Royal Oaks pro Buddy Cook gave him his first professional lesson, then Smith took over in Leonard’s pre-teen years-and Leonard has never looked for another golf instructor since.
Withaslightbuildovera5-foot-9,160-pound frame, Leonard has suffered from a career-long length deficit off the tee. Last year, Leonard placed near the bottom in driving length (133th), but near the top (13th) in accuracy. The solution for both is one and the same: control. Leonard compensates for his lack of length in a sport that always rewards the long hitters by adding another component to his game-fearlessness.
“He’s not a real big, strong knocker, but he’s the most fearless player I know,” Smith said. “He can hit it more accurately with a 5-iron than most players can with a 7-iron, and he’ll kill you with it.”
By the time Leonard ascended to the highest amateur level, his controlled game on and off the course had attracted another former University of Texas golfing star, U.S. Open champion Tom Kite. When Leonard was set to play in the finals of the 1992 U.S. Amateur Championship, Kite interrupted a nearby golfing trip to watch Leonard collect the national championship and stamp himself as a prime future professional attraction.
When the pair returned to Austin, where Kite lives and where Leonard was a student at UT, Kite invited him to play golf and have lunch. Their close relationship has helped Leonard find his way through his first couple of years as a professional.
“He has a real good, solid game and is very steady,” Tom Kite Sr., father of the Open champion, says of Leonard, “His temperament is a lot like Tom [Jr.], and I know he is someone Tom would like to be friends with. Tom certainly likes being around him.”
“I’ve never seen a player his age so polished,” Tom Jr. adds.
Both Kite and Leonard love the solitude of the practice range and would rather hit a bucket of balls after a grueling round than glad-hand sponsors or chat endlessly with the golf media.
Kite helped Leonard hook up with his agents at Pros, Inc., while his father set up a corporation called JL Enterprises to help him with his early living expenses on the PGA TOUR.
“We were prepared for the long haul. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it would have been a long time,” Larry says. “We had been to a seminar where they said the average age for your first professional win is 29 to 30.”
Larry Leonard started JL Enterprises with $5,000 and 30 days later added another $5,000. In Justin’s third professional start, he finished third and won $74,900. Only six months later, JL Enterprises was closed and Justin Leonard has never looked to anyone else for money again.
While he hasn’t taken any wild spending sprees with his newly earned riches, Leonard has purchased a modern, two-bedroom, 2.500-square-foot townhouse in the Turtle Creek area, five minutes from where his parents live. He bought a green Land Rover to get around town, but it sits idle in the driveway much of the time; he was gone 32 weeks last year playing golf.
While he earned several All-America honors during his four years at UT, a NCAA title to go along with his U.S. Amateur win and a PGA TOUR victory, not to mention millions of dollars in prize winnings and endorsements, some things still elude Leonard’s control.
For example, there he was on page 119 of the May ’96 Cosmopolitan special issue, in a story about the most eligible bachelors, along with George Clooney, Keanu Reeves, Troy Aikman and tennis player Malivai Washington. “He seemed young, fun and good-looking,” said Barrie Gillies, Cosmo section editor.
But even before this subject has been officially broached, Leonard begins to shift uneasily in his seat. “Oh, geez. Here we go again,” Leonard says, sounding very resigned.
He never asked Cosmopolitan how he got into the Hall of Hunks, he says, but worried about the outcome and the reaction. “They just called and asked some questions, then asked me to send in a picture. My mom was worried they’d use some picture of me with my shirt off or in my underwear, but it was done with a lot of class.”
Leonard himself was most concerned about what his fellow professionals would say. “It was quiet for about the first week and a half, and 1 thought maybe I had gotten away with it. Then Robin Love [wife of Davis Love III] got a copy, and it got around to all the wives. Then a copy found its way into the locker room at Colonial,” he recalls.
“It’s been a lot of fun, kind of goofy. I’ve gotten a lot of funny comments and ribbing. It’ll die down for a month, then a television network will run a graphic about it when they show me in a tournament and I’ll get 10 calls that night,” Leonard says.
While golf groupies may not match the number or reputation of those of other sports, Leonard admits to having gotten plenty of female attention during the past year. While he won’t say he’s collected phone numbers at tournaments, he does allow, “I’ve seen it happen.”
High school and college teammate and friend Chad Senn, an assistant pro at Royal Oaks, says a recent dinner at Snuffer’s netted both attention and phone numbers. “Sometimes we’ll have one on a napkin and one from the waitress. It started as a humorous little deal; now he just rolls his eyes.”
In 1993-94, Justin dated Jessica Wadkins, the college-age daughter of Dallas PGA star Lanny Wadkins. They still retain a friendship that includes occasional phone calls.
Ask about his current status and Leonard’s noted control of his privacy kicks in. “How can I say this without sounding like a jerk,” he says. “I’m still dating, but nothing serious. It’s very difficult.
“I saw an interview where [Troy] Aikman said it’s hard to know people’s motives. That’s something 1 think about when I meet people, what are their intentions when we’re dating.”
There could be a lot worse things than being known as a rich, good-looking, young pro golfer who is also a clotheshorse. But Leonard says he struggles to cultivate a lasting relationship in the fast-paced ’90s.
“It seems like everybody and their brother wants to set me up. It’s not easy to date when you’re on the road all the time.”
Randy Smith says he has set up his star student twice but is more careful to watch for the wrong match-ups. “If something is askew, I’ll bring i( up. I may have missed some things, but I’m watching closer than I ever have in my life.” he says.
When he is in town, Leonard says he prefers to retreat to his townhouse after a c|uiet dinner, maybe watch a movie, then surf the Internet, composing e-mail messages to his friends.
Nancy Leonard, Justin’s mother, recalls that she began to think her son might have a rewarding future in professional golf when she began to read the list of the past winners of the U.S. Amateur- Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson.
“The night before the U.S. Amateur final, we were in the hotel room, and Justin said our lives were getting ready to change,” Larry Leonard says.
Change they did, and now, “my goal for this year is to smile more,” Justin Leonard says. “I’m trying to enjoy things more. I hate to play badly in front of anybody, but I’ve learned to recover a little better. After getting done with a round, I want to go hit balls on the driving range. 1 hope that never changes. I just want to get better.”
KELLI KUEHNE: A Champion With Style
At age 15, Kelli Kuehne burst upon the elite junior scene in the American Junior Golf Association, winning several national tournaments. She captured the U.S. Girls Junior Championship at age 17, followed by her first U.S. Amateur victory the next summer. She entered the University of Texas after the first amateur title in 1995 but missed most of her freshman year al UT with a stress fracture.
She came back in a big way, winning the British Amateur last summer, followed by a second U,S. Amateur title and then a third-place individual finish in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship.
“You can play golf for 5,000 years and [Kelli’s amateur record] is not going to be duplicated. The Junior Amateur, British Open and two U.S. Amateurs-you can’t question her wins,” says her father, Ernie Kuehne. “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
Apparently someone agrees with the proud father. Just months after signing Tiger Woods to a reported $40 million endorsement deal, Nike made Kuehne its first female golf spokeswoman.
Despite her upper-class Highland Park background, which might suggest a carefree upbringing with a butler escorting her to the first tee, Kuehne has worked hard during her golfing career, struggling to live with diabetes and to overcome the stress fracture in her right foot that nearly cost her an entire season al UT.
But the golfing lifestyle was never something Kuehne had a hard time adjusting to. With two brothers who are national-caliber amateurs, along with a mother who was willing to drive anywhere for a golf tournament or practice and a father who always gave plenty of financial and emotional support, the Kuehnes are their own golfing mini-corporation. Melt down the trophies the Kuehne threesome has collected and there would likely be enough for a very shiny statue.
Trip Kuehne, 25, earned All-America status at Oklahoma State University and lost to Tiger Woods in the finals of the 1994 U.S. Amateur. SMU golfer Hank Kuehne, 21, was always the longest driver in the family, often outdriving Woods, Kelli’s partner in Nike’s multiracial golf marketing plan and a regular guest in the Kuehne household when he is in town.
Winning three national amateur titles in just more than a year is a snap compared to being asked to serve as golf’s new female focus. Who would have thought Kelli Kuehne would not only eclipse her brothers on the course, but be called upon to launch a new era for ladies’ professional golf?
“It’s pretty obvious she can bring golf to a new level,” Ernie Kuehne, a Dallas attorney, says of his daughter. “I think Kelli is tremendously important to the game. She has both charisma and marketability. A lot of players may have the game, but not the personality. I believe timing is everything. She is the right girl at the right time.”
Ernie Kuehne says that with performance bonuses, Kelli’s Nike deal will reach $1.5 million to $2 million for five years. With a club contract from Top-Flite and other diabetes-related endorsements, Ernie said Kelli’s endorsement deals could reach $4 million to $6 million in coming years.
Kuehne turned pro last fall but didn’t make the decision soon enough to qualify for the entire 1997 LPGA TOUR. She will be allowed to play in only four LPGA tournaments this year as well as the U.S. Open.
While she’s not yet an official member of the Tour, LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts says he’s happy to have Kuehne-and especially her endorsements-as part of the ladies’ professional golf circuit.
“Having a company like Nike is absolutely helpful because it raises the level for all men’s and women’s golf,” Ritts says. “They’re determined to be a force in golf, and as they begin to sign some of our players, then a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Ritts, a Dallas native, says he understands the frustration of some of the older players who have seen Kuehne sign a multimillion-dollar deal before earning her first professional dollar, but he urges a look at the big picture.
“There is always a level of celebrity curiosity,” Ritts says. “People want to see the celebrities and the stars, and I know in my background as a marketer and a TV person, this product delivers great experience.”’
The final deadline to qualify for the 1997 season under LPGA rules was Sept. 10. Kuehne didn’t make her final decision to leave college and turn pro until after returning from the World Amateur Team Championship in November.
“After looking at all the options and deciding what was best for me, I decided to turn pro,” Kuehne says. “It wasn’t Nike who made the decision; it was me and my family.”
She quickly signed with the same agency that built Tiger Woods’ deal with Nike, International Management Group, and began to practice for her professional debut. Should she win one of her five tournaments this year, she will be exempt from qualifying school this fall. If not, she will be there swinging for her ’98 playing rights.
Life on the Tour hasn’t kicked in yet for Kuehne. She was introduced into society as a Dallas Symphony debutante this winter, and in the spring, while only a part-time Tour member, she took three hours in a coaching philosophy class at UT, participated in plenty of Pi Beta Phi sorority activities and had time with her fiancé, Jay Humphrey, a Richardson lineman with the Longhorns football team. Fittingly enough, Humphrey proposed to Kuehne by spelling out his proposal in golf balls last December on the 18th fairway at Stonebridge Ranch Country Club, behind the Kuehne family’s house.
Almost every Thursday afternoon, Kuehne catches a Southwest Airlines flight to Dallas to be with her family and meet with her teacher. Hank Haney, at the Hank Haney Golf Ranch near the family home at Stonebridge.
“I’ve worked with Hank since I was age 12. He’s taken me from square one. I trust him completely,” Kelli says.
Haney has worked with all three of the Kuehne golfers and never doubted Kelli’s abilities. “When she first came out, I was di rector of golf at Stonebridge. She couldn’t hit the ball off the ladies’ tee,” he says.
“She is an achiever. She works really hard at her game and as young as she’s won, she is much more mature for her age. She’s been through a lot more than most kids her age and is very mentally tough.”
When it came time tor Kuehne to make the decision to leave school and play full-time for pay, Haney says he is confident she made the right choice.
“I always thought she should turn pro. I told her that and told her dad that,” he says. “She had proven everything she needed to prove in college. Now she can get tuned up for some good tournaments. She has a lot of time to work on her game and get her schedule right.”
Surviving her brothers ’ neighborhood flag football games, learning to play with-then defeat-her brothers in golf and then conquering her competition in the amateur tournaments, Kuehne has already had her mental outlook toughened for the upcoming LPGA season.
“I think some people have a hard time with the fact I have contacts [endorsements) without having my Tour card yet,” she says. ’i can’t worry about what other people think. I’m not out on the LPGA TOUR to make a new best friend. I mean, those are the people I’m competing against.
“I play golf for the love of the sport, and I have my own expectations to live up to. Plus it’s a huge confidence boost that other companies are backing you and believing in you,” Kuehne says.
Her father adds, “There is more pressure than ever before. The expectations can be a great burden. A lot of people think she will dominate.”
Kuehne turned pro in time for the J.C. Penney’s mixed-team professional tournament. There, she teamed with Tiger Woods.
“Tiger and I first played together in 1992 and have been friends for a long time,” she says. “We’ve hung out together. I give him advice, and he gives me advice.”
Kuehne says her relationship with Woods has given her a new perspective after growing up in the nearly all-white atmosphere of Highland Park High School.
“It’s not a common thing to see a young black [golf] sensation. We talked about it when we were younger, and he said a lot of people don’t like it because he’s black. He was the only black golfer on the AJGA TOUR. Things are changing now,” Kuehne says.
Their relationship became much closer when Hank Kuehne went to a alcohol rehabilitation clinic to (real his drinking problem. Woods was among the first people to contact Hank and became a regular phone confidante.
“That’s how we became so close, because of the relationship Tiger and Hank have,” Kelli says. “Tiger has always been a good companion and friend. While I never judged anybody based on their color, he was probably my first black friend.”
Kuehne’s toughness and discipline was also shaped by her diagnosis at age 10 of juvenile-onset diabetes.
“I remember that day just like it was yesterday,” she says. “I went to the doctor and he said 1 was diabetic. 1 looked at my mother and she was frowning a bit. I didn’t know about (diabetes], but the doctor said I would have to take two shots a day because my body wasn’t producing enough insulin.
“My mom gave me shots for two days and I moped around. Then I decided this is something I can control or the disease can control me. It has taught me discipline. 1 would go to birthday parties and have the cake and take the icing off. I would stay al a friend’s house and pull out my shots right in front of their mom and dad.
“I’ve never been hospitalized for the diabetes. You can feel it coming on-your hands start to tingle-so usually you can prevent it. It’s important to be aware and drink Gatorade or eat something,” Kelli adds.
She credits UT head women’s trainer Tina Bonci, who is also a diabetic, for helping her control the disease and to learn to regulate her active lifestyle.
With her right foot healing from the stress fracture (thanks to some new shoes from Nike and special modifications by Bonci) and her diabetes under control. Kuehnecan devote full time attention to her role as the fresh, young star of the LPGA TOUR.
The Tour underwent nearly a year of turbulent publicity in 1995-96. which ultimately resulted in the firing of CBS-TV announcer Ben Wright over his comments on lack of sponsor interest because of alleged lesbianism on the LPGA TOUR.
Kuehne says she was never bothered by the tag placed on some female golfers but would like to change any negative perceptions of LPGA golfers. “I’ve always tried to create an image for myself. I’ve always worn a baseball cap, I wear lipstick and a bow in my hair, so people can look and say. ’There’s Kelli Kuehne.’ “
Says her father, “We’re not here to judge; judging is left up to God. We’re not telling other people how to live their lives. The Kuehne household does its best in golf and in life. We want to be a credit to the game of golf with our play.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Kelli kuehne says both she and Justin Leonard have plenty of golfing ground left to cover.
“Golf in the ’90s is becoming more revolutionized. Younger people are going out and stating their intentions, ’I’m here. You can’t beat me. ’ Some people think that’s bragging, but I think that’s the attitude of a real champion,” she says.
Trip Kuehne is perhaps in the best position to judge the future. He grew up playing junior, college and amateur golf with Justin Leonard. He has watched and encouraged his sister since she took up the sport a decade ago, and he caddied for her with Woods at the J.C. Penney event.
The future of golf is in pretty good shape, according to Trip Kuehne. “Justin is always going to give you 110 percent, never give up, and grind out a good score. Everyone doubted Kelli because she was so small |5-foot-3] and she proved them wrong. When people tell them they can’t do anything, they just file it away lor motivation,” he says.
“Both are very focused on golf; both are very’ serious, very competitive. Justin is very solid with his game: he’ll never shoot a real high score. Kelli brings great scores, fluorescein tees and blue fingernails.”
As competitive and driven as these new young golf stars may be, it looks like they’ll make golf in the next century a pretty cool and colorful place.