HANK KUEHNE HITS THE BIG TIME

Hank Kuphne has already weathered the pressures of family success and a bout with alcoholism. Now the 23-year-old is poised to take on the world’s best golfers.

NOT SO LONG AGO, TENNIS FANS MARVELED at the brute strength of Venus Williams and swore the teenage wonder couldn’t be beat. Now they count the days until younger sister Serena, who lost a close match to Venus in March, knocks her off her pedestal in an all-Williams final. While Vince DiMaggio blazed a trail for his family, it is his younger brother, Joe, who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Beau Bridges landed his first roles as a teenager, but it was younger brother Jeff who wound up with Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Their careers have followed a similar story line.

Dallas golfer Hank Kuehne knows the dynamics of sibling rivalry as well as anybody. He knows that, in competitive families, it is often the last in line who is supposed to do the most-and he’s ready to prove himself worthy.

Kuehne was as prepared as anyone could have been when he reached the final of the U.S. Amateur golf tournament last summer. He will be equally well-grounded for the career that awaits. The SMU senior is expected to step away from his family’s rich legacy in amateur golf in June or July, jumping into the bubbling cauldron of talent and dreams, fortunes and ego-crushing disappointments that is the world of professional golf.

No one can say how he will do as a pro. But those who know the game expect him to arrive with both the flourish of advance billing (and multi-million-dollar endorsement contracts) and enough game to prove that he belongs on the same course as the world’s best players.

NBC analyst Johnny Miller gushes about the way the big kid overpowered the forbidding Oak Hill Country Club, a beast of a course where the old guard of American golf-guys like Curtis Strange, Ben Crenshaw, and Corey Pavin-was reduced to tears in the 1995 Ryder Cup. Hank Haney, the leaching pro whose overhaul contributed to Mark O’Meara winning the Masters and the British Open last year, says Kuehne has a chance to make the biggest splash in pro golf since Tiger Woods. All this for a college senior who’s had to battle not only the pressures of family rivalry but also afar more serious struggle with alcoholism. In his 23 short years, Kuehne has overcome more demons than some people can in a lifetime.



FOR ALONG TIME, HANK KUEHNE WATCHED from the wings as first older brother Trip and then younger sister Kelli climbed to the top of junior golf. Trip, the eldest of the Kuehne kids-the progeny of a hard-driving lawyer from Dallas, Ernie, and his nurturing wife, Pam-had Woods on the run in the final of the 1994 U.S. Amateur. Trip was four up after 18 holes in the 36-hole final at the TPC at Sawgrass. But Woods ran off enough birdies down the stretch to take the prestigious title away. It was a bitter defeat, and a lesson that was felt by the entire family. Kelli Kuehne would not leave the same margin for late-arriving heroics when she reached the final of the Women’s Amateur. She put away older opponents with precision in ’95 and ’96, becoming only the third woman since 1940 to win back-to-back Amateurs.

So, Hank was ready when his turn came at Oak Hill. “He had been on the cusp a long time,” says Trip, who opted for a career as a financial analyst rather than a pro golfer. “It’s like now he can stand up and shout, “Hello, world. I’m Hank Kuehne and I’m the best player in the family!’ And he is.”

In five preliminary matches. Hank played so well that he never even had to play the 18th hole. Every opponent was eliminated by the time he left the 17th green, if they had survived even that long. In die final, he hit so many quality shots that it didn’t matter when 44-year-old petroleum salesman Tom McKnight sunk enough long putts to span the distance of the Alaskan pipeline if they were laid end to end.

McKnight was four down through 16 holes before his berserk putting allowed him to win five holes in a seven-hole stretch. Kuehne, who had Trip carrying his bag, did not flinch: He strung together six of the most determined pars in his life. The salesman couldn’t keep up, falling into a three-down hole he could not escape.

On die 17tfi hole, Kuehne went for the kill. He rejected conventional wisdom to hit his driver on the tight par-4 hole, smashing a blast that faded just right to get around the dogleg. He had only a wedge left on the 458-yard hole, and he knocked it to nine feet. That was the ballgame.

Afterward, NBC’s Miller admitted that he was stunned by how Kuehne had used his length off the tee to overpower a course that had been notorious for its severity. Millercalls it “the most impressive display of power the Amateur has ever seen.” That’s high praise coming from the analyst who worked the NBC booth for Woods’ victories at Sawgrass, Newport Country Club, and Pumpkin Ridge. “Kuehne is even longer than Tiger Woods.” Miller says. “I can’t tell you what an advantage that is.”

Longer than Tiger Woods? That’s like investing better than Warren Buffet, driving a car faster than Jeff Gordon, throwing a baseball faster than Nolan Ryan. There’s only so far a human being is supposed to be able to drive a golf ball, and Tiger is already about 50 yards longer than that. Longer than that is, well, downright frightening.



FOR A KID, KUEHNE IS A BIG MAN. He’s 6-foot-2 and pushing 200 pounds. He played his share of tackle football with the other kids in Highland Park, too. “He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s a good athlete,” says Haney, the McKinney-based instructor who has worked with Hank for 10 years. “When golfers hit the ball a long way, they’re just fast. That’s pure and simple.” By “fast,” Haney means they generate tremendous clubhead speed from their swings. Another NBC analyst, Roger Maltbie, says Kuehne uses the same formula as Woods to generate power.

“He’s lanky and strong,” Maltbie says. “I think he has a great deal of speed in the uncoiling of his body, very much like Tiger. If I tried to do something like that, they’d have to put me in traction.”

With Haney’s guidance, Kuehne has learned how to control the mechanics of his golf. He’s learned to smooth his swing, to adopt a rhythm that fits his strength. That process of change mirrors Kuehne’s younger life, when drinking almost ruined his promising career before it started.

While Trip and Kelli grew easily into adulthood, Hank was the family challenge. As a child, he was afflicted with both attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, but neither was diagnosed until he had entered college. Hank never achieved in the classroom the way his siblings did, and everyone assumed it was because he just wasn’t interested.

Hank’s real problems with drinking began in junior high and worsened in college. He had successfully hidden his drinking from his brother and sister, as well as his parents, but by die time the two brothers were both playing golf for Oklahoma State. Trip knew his brother had a problem. A freshman-year car wreck landed Hank in jail for suspicion of DWI (the charge was later dropped), and he left OSU to spend a life-saving semester at an alcohol and drug treatment facility in Minnesota. After finishing the treatment program, Hank transferred to SMU. He’s since become a model student, and a role model for recovering addicts.

Kuehne calls the U.S. Amateur the “second greatest victory” of his life. Sobriety remains the leader.

“I try not to think about where I was and the direction my life was going,” Kuehne says. “Today, I’m satisfied with the direction my life is going.”

Kuehne plays it coy when asked about his plans to turn pro. After previewing Pebble Beach in February’s AT&T National Pro-Am, he talked about returning to defend his Amateur on the historic course. But by the time the best college players and skilled hobbyists like McKnight and Trip Kuehne descend upon 17-Mile Drive in August, Hank Kuehne may very well be going head to head with David Duval, Justin Leonard, and Tiger Woods,

THIS YEAR, THE BEST GOLFERS IN THE world will split up purses greater than the GNP of many nations. But for most pro golfers, the toughest part of the job is gaining one of the 125 full exemptions to the PGA Tour. There are no guarantees, even for the most talented players. Have a bad week at the wrong time and say hello to the seedy underbelly of a dream-the Hooters Tour or some other form of fringe employment.

But the Tour does have a heart. It allows non-exempt players to enter as many as seven tournaments a year on sponsors’ exemptions. Kuehne will have no problem landing the full seven. His challenge then would be to earn enough money in those seven events to finish in the top 125 on the money list-a feat which this year could require winning more than $250,000. It’s a longshot, but Leonard and Woods demonstrated that it can be done.

Hank Kuehne’s ceiling is as high as any of his peers. His love for the game is unconditional. His time is coming fast.

“He just has such a love for the game,” Haney says. “There’s nothing he would rather do than play golf. It can be hard to keep going sometimes, but it’s easy if you have a passion for what you’re doing. This kid has a passion for golf.”

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