• Trip Kuehne was five-up on Tiger Woods with 12 holes to play in the 1994 U.S. Amateur. Woods would come back, but it's Kuehne who found peace first.
By Michael Rosenberg
June 11, 2018

This week at Shinnecock Hills, Tiger Woods will try to win his 10th USGA national championship, a feat so extraordinary that it’s hard to believe. But it’s true. Along with his three U.S. Open titles (2000, ’02, ’08), Woods has won three U.S. Junior Amateurs and three U.S. Amateurs. He has won in almost every conceivable way: by 15 strokes (2000 U.S. Open), on his 38th hole of the day (the 1996 Amateur) and on a broken leg (2008 Open.) And then there was the time he came back from five holes down with 12 to play to beat Trip Kuehne.

That happened in the 1994 U.S. Amateur at TPC Sawgrass, and the story gets told every now and again. If Kuehne—then a junior at Oklahoma State—had won, he would have felt pressure to cash in on the accomplishment and turn professional. Instead, he remained an amateur. Twenty-four years later, Kuehne is still an amateur.

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We’re going to tell that story again today, but we’re going to put it in a jar and shake it up first. Usually, people see Tiger’s worldwide fame and all his championships, while Kuehne fills the role as the guy who could have had a taste of that life but declined. Let’s not just ask what happened to Trip Kuehne. Let’s also talk about what happened to Tiger Woods.

They were friends before you heard of either of them. The first time Earl and Kultida Woods let their boy travel by himself, he stayed with the Kuehne family. The Kuehnes were a golfing powerhouse with three child phenoms: Kelli would play on the LPGA Tour, Hank would play on the PGA Tour, and Trip would start his college career at Arizona State, where he roomed with Phil Mickelson before transferring to Oklahoma State.

Woods, of course, dreamed of a golf career before he knew what the word career meant. Trip Kuehne never did. That may sound weird now. It may have sounded weird then. But it’s true. Every December, the Kuehne family would visit New York, and Trip was infatuated with two locations: the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street. He saw the traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and saw what he wanted to do with his life. He went home and won stock-picking contests. This was his dream.

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He became so good at golf that a career in the sport seemed possible. Probable, even… if he desired it. Still, he wasn’t tempted. He loved the game, but he did not want that touring professional life. When Trip was in high school, he was riding along the highway with a friend whose father was a famous PGA Tour player. They started talking about their families. The friend said his dad was gone so much, and so consumed by the sport, that they barely had a relationship.

“At some point,” Trip’s friend said, “I will get a call that my father has died playing a professional golf tournament.”

Kuehne never forgot it.

“I was like, ‘Man, I know everything about my father. How lucky am I?’” he says.

If he had even the slightest interest in playing on the PGA Tour, it dimmed that day. And so Trip followed his dream, working on Wall Street and eventually founding an investment management firm called Double Eagle Capital, a nod to his upbringing around the game. That name is as close as golf ever came to Kuehne’s everyday professional life.  

At around the same time, Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes and held all four major championships at the same time.

In the summer of 2001, Kuehne started dedicating more of his free time to elite amateur golf, and he says that from 2001 to 2007, “I was pretty good.” So was Woods—in that stretch, Woods won nine of his 14 major championships.

And then Kuehne examined his life and decided he was playing too much golf. His son, Will, was 7 years old and Trip was missing too much of his life. He had lost his connection with some of the friends who meant the most to him. He cut back on the golf. He got into a routine: get to the office at 7:30 a.m., leave by 4:30 p.m. He is home every weekend. If Will is playing in a sporting event, Trip leaves work early.

Kuehne figured out early what most people never do: True greatness comes with a cost. As he says, “Something has got to give. You become an alcoholic, a drug addict, a bad father, a bad husband…Something happens along the way. There are sacrifices that are made.”

He wasn’t talking about Tiger. He still considers Woods a friend, still sees him on occasion, still cheers for him, still mesmerized by him. But let’s face it: he very well could have been talking about Tiger.

From 1997 to 2008, while Kuehne was building his investment career, Woods played golf better than anybody ever has. He was also so consumed by his pursuit of excellence that at times it seemed he forgot how to be human. Fellow players were there to be beaten. Fans were there to adore him. Reporters were another opponent to be fended off. And of course, we know what happened to his marriage.

But then he hit that fire hydrant and the world essentially called him out, and injuries took his career away from him for a while, and he went to a facility to deal with a reliance on pain medication. And the Woods you see today appears to be a very different person.

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Talk to almost anybody in the sport, and they’ll tell you: Tiger seems a lot happier now. Nicer. At peace with himself. A lot of these people liked Tiger before. But they sense that he likes himself more now. He cracks jokes at his own expense, he gives more detailed answers, he mingles and laughs with fans and competitors. A decade ago, it was inconceivable that Tiger might play a practice round with longtime rival Phil Mickelson. When he did so at the Masters two months ago, it really wasn’t even surprising.

For a long time, Tiger Woods was so good at golf that he didn’t have to be good at much else. And now, no longer invincible on the course, he has improved in other aspects of his life. Twenty-four years after being five down to Trip Kuehne with 12 to play, Tiger Woods has caught up.

The Kuehnes were known first and foremost as long hitters, and there is some debate as to whether Trip could have been a great PGA Tour player. His high school coach, Hank Haney, has said that Kuehne was not a good enough putter. Kuehne points out that he never spent much time practicing his putting, and if he had worked on it he might have been a lot better. But he does not think he would have been a great pro, for a simple reason: he never wanted to be a pro at all.

“If a guy is following his dream and living his dream, he is going to kick somebody’s ass who is going through the motions,” Kuehne says. “It’s very hard to be a professional athlete. It’s very hard to be the best in the world at something you do. To be at the very top of your profession is extremely difficult.”

Kuehne will keep an eye on Woods and the other pros he knows this week at Shinnecock. If Woods is in contention on the weekend, Kuehne would love to see him win that 10th USGA championship. He will not spend much time wishing it were only nine. He has the life he wanted.

Will Kuehne is 18 now. He plays quarterback for Owasso (Oklahoma) High School well enough to be recruited by colleges. The schools that are recruiting Will fall into two categories. There are Maryland, Arkansas State and North Texas and some Power Five conference schools that have expressed an interest but have not yet offered a scholarship. He can choose one of them if he wants to focus on football while getting an education. And then there are the Ivy League schools: Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Brown. Will can choose one of those if he wants to get a great education while playing football.

“That is what he is weighing,” Trip says. “As I sit here right now, I don’t know what he is going to do. It’s his decision. He has to figure that out. You have to do what fits you the best.”

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