They were a sight to see, those pickup football games in the
front yard of the Kuehne (pronounced KEE-nee) house in the
Dallas suburb of McKinney. From all over the neighborhood the
kids would come, lugging shoulder pads and helmets, eager to
test the Kuehnes on their home turf. The three Kuehnes stood
side by side in most everything they did. There was little
Kelli, the youngest, all pigtails and attitude. Almost two years
older was Hank--Henry to those who knew him well--a big,
reckless kid with uncommon athletic skills. Trip, the eldest by
three years, was the leader, the quarterback who drew complex
plays in the dirt and then, ferociously competitive, made them
work. "We didn't lose many of those games," says Trip, now 24.
"In fact, I hardly remember the three of us ever losing."
This is an article from the May 19, 1997 issue
The Kuehnes haven't done much losing in the years since, though
golf is their game now. Much of their success can be traced to
the smash-mouth ethic that carried the day in those front-yard
rumbles, as well as to a strong family bond forged on a variety
of playing fields. These days, however, each defines victory in
Kelli is coming off one of the most remarkable accomplishments
in women's amateur golf and, at 20, has begun an eagerly
anticipated pro career. She won the last two U.S. Amateurs (with
an All-America freshman year at Texas in between) while
displaying a star quality that's in short supply in women's pro
golf. No wonder that Nike hitched its wagon to her last November
with a $1.3 million deal that set an LPGA record for endorsement
money and ruffled feathers. Hoping to defuse some of the
expectations, Kuehne is spending this year refining her game on
the practice range and the mini-tours, making only a few
appearances on the LPGA tour before attempting to earn a card in
Q school in the fall.
Trip, meanwhile, has grounded himself in the real world. Three
times an All-America at Oklahoma State and the runner-up in the
1994 U.S. Amateur, he has forsaken professional golf in favor of
his other passion, the stock market. This weekend he finished
work on his MBA at Oklahoma State and with his bride of less
than a year, Dusti, returned to Dallas to go to work for White
Rock Capital, an investment firm. Though he has a black Lab
named Hogan, Kuehne is closer in spirit to Bobby Jones,
steadfast about playing golf at its highest levels as a career
Hank, 21, is the least heralded of the golfing Kuehnes but the
most talented. Throughout his career he has had to battle not
only the legacies of his more accomplished siblings but also the
demons of attention deficit disorder, depression and alcoholism.
Having recently celebrated two years of sobriety that included
an All-America 1996 season at SMU, Kuehne is this close to
emerging as an overpowering player, at the college level and
beyond. His is a success story written one day at a time.
Each of the three Kuehnes' different destinies within golf has
shaped the others'. "I didn't get into golf because I liked it,"
says Kelli. "I played because my brothers played it." At 5'2",
Li'l Kel, as she's often called around the Kuehne household, is
almost always competing against longer hitters, yet at one point
as an amateur she won 18 straight times in match play, a
testament to her scrappiness, and to her brothers. "I grew up
thinking it was cool to fall down and skin your knee and get
bloody," she says. "I mean, hey, my brothers did it. It was
uncool to cry. That toughened me up a whole lot."
Likewise, Hank's development as a golfer, and to some extent his
struggles off the course, have been affected by having to test
himself against his older brother. "Trip and I have always
competed at everything, even stupid stuff," he says. "We'll
still get all intense about who can bounce a golf ball up in the
air off the face of a sand wedge more times. We don't handle
losing to each other very well."
Says Trip, without a bit of self-consciousness, "I couldn't
stand, and to this day still can't, not being the best at
whatever I do."
So if Kelli was turned into a spitfire by her brothers and Hank
got his passion from Trip, the question becomes, Where did
Trip's raging need to win come from? This was put to him over
lunch recently. Eavesdropping, Dusti nearly choked on a french
fry. "Have you met Ernie yet?" she asked.
Otto, Texas, is a no-stoplight, no-hope hamlet 25 miles
southeast of Waco, in the central part of the Lone Star State. A
half century ago the population of Otto hovered around 100 and
included Ernie Kuehne. "I grew up in the sixth-poorest county in
America," says the 52-year-old Kuehne. Grew up fast. At six
Kuehne was driving a tractor on the family cotton farm. By 13,
with both his parents holding down full-time jobs, he harvested
all 500 acres by himself. "The work never stopped," he says.
"You rolled out of bed at 5:30, and you quit when you were done
or when it got dark, one of the two."
Ernie's work ethic was drilled into him by his father, Ernest,
an austere man whose love for his son was unquestioned, if
unspoken. "He was a guy who told everyone else he was proud of
me, but he only told me twice in my life," says Ernie, who can
still tell you the details of those occasions. Ernest Kuehne
held as an article of faith that education was the ticket out of
Otto, and he demanded academic excellence from his son. Ernie
always met his father's expectations, but between the schoolwork
and the farmwork there was little time for his one true love,
sports. "In all honesty I had the athletic ability to accomplish
some great things, but I didn't have the opportunity," says
Kuehne. "I didn't have the financial means, and, especially, I
didn't have the encouragement from my parents."
In high school Ernie was allowed to play organized sports for
the first time, and he made the all-district teams in football
and basketball. Some small colleges offered hoops scholarships,
but in accordance to his father's wishes he became a man of
letters, not letter jackets, attending North Texas State and
then Baylor law school. (At North Texas State, Kuehne joined the
track team without his father's knowledge and finished second in
the conference in the discus and fourth in the shot put.) Kuehne
went on to become a successful defense attorney. He still
practices law, but he made his fortune by owning a gold and
silver trading firm, two banks and an oil and gas company in
addition to holding substantial interests in securities and
Despite all his success, Kuehne has had but one regret. "He
never got to see me climb the mountain," he says of his father,
who died in 1972. No wonder, then, that Kuehne has attacked his
life as a sports dad with the same vigor he took to the cotton
field. Over the last two decades he has coached his kids in
every sport imaginable. When they gravitated toward golf, he
bought closetfuls of the best equipment and invested in the
finest teachers. To this day Kuehne is likely to drop everything
to shag practice balls for one of the kids.
Ernie's zeal is matched by that of his wife of nearly 29 years.
Pam grew up a jock, playing basketball in junior high and tennis
in high school. She also talked shop with her father, who
coached football, basketball and baseball at the high school
level. "We've killed several Suburbans driving the kids to all
of their sporting events," says Pam with pride.
The biggest difference between Mom and Dad? Pam is always the
kids' biggest fan, while Ernie can be their harshest critic.
"I'm not one of these parents who believes you tell your kids
they've done good just because they're out there, O.K.?" says
Ernie, who can be as blustery as the Texas plains. "It's not
life or death, but it's not all right to go out and loaf and
play lousy. The way I grew up, you learned how to persevere and
how to survive. Some people are winners, some people aren't.
We're winners. Let's put it this way: I don't think my kids are
competitive by accident."
"Sweetie, where's the Snoop Doggy Dogg CD?"
That's the biggest question facing Kelli Kuehne as she and her
boyfriend, Jay Humphrey, roll through the streets of Austin on
the way to meet some friends for dinner at their favorite Cajun
joint. They're riding Texas-style, with Kuehne cozied up to
Humphrey in the cab of his pickup, one of his meaty arms draped
across her shoulders. Humphrey, a 6'6", 305-pound teddy bear and
a starting offensive tackle on the Texas football team, is asked
by a slightly squashed observer how long he and Kuehne have been
an item. "One year, two weeks and four days," he says.
Yes, Kuehne and Humphrey are that sweet on each other. In fact,
they're liable to drop multiple sugars, babys or sweeties into a
single sentence. This wasn't the case, however, on their first
date, Jan. 25, 1996, when they talked until four o'clock in the
morning. At that point, says Humphrey, "I got the Heisman, big
time," referring to the dreaded straight-arm made famous by the
trophy of the same name.
Kuehne, of course, changed her mind. She made another weighty
decision 10 months later, bolting to the professional ranks with
a splashy debut at the JCPenney Classic, in which she tied for
second (and pocketed $75,576) while teaming with Tiger Woods in
the mixed pair format. Her life these days is that of a typical
college kid, her whopping bank account notwithstanding. (In
addition to Nike, she has signed deals with Top Flite and a
major food company.) When Kuehne announced she was going pro
four days before last Thanksgiving, the timing was considered
curious because the LPGA's qualifying school had already come
and gone. As a result Kuehne's 1997 LPGA schedule is limited to
four events, the maximum number of sponsor's exemptions allowed.
Her decision was dictated primarily by the endorsement
marketplace and a disenchantment with the constraints of college
golf and its level of competition. But the chance to have one
last mellow year in Austin was also a factor. "I want to be so
much more than just a golfer," says Kuehne. "I've worked so hard
to have a realm of experiences, to be a great golfer and also
have a great life."
So while Kuehne devotes most of her weekends to golf, flying
home to Dallas to work with Hank Haney, the SMU coach, who is
the private instructor to all three Kuehnes, her week is spent
going to class, doing activities with her sorority sisters from
Pi Beta Phi and hanging out with Humphrey.
A typical day for her and Humphrey includes a midday snuggle
break while watching The Young and the Restless, a home-cooked
dinner and a video rental, topped off by an antagonistic game of
hearts. "Yeah, they're kind of like an old married couple," says
Heather Bowie, one of Kuehne's two roommates at their charmingly
collegiate two-bedroom apartment near campus, which is also home
to her seven-month-old chocolate Lab, Bailey.
Few old married couples, though, share so much athleticism or a
competitive jones quite so strong. Despite two broken wrists,
Humphrey started all 12 games last year for the Longhorns as a
redshirt sophomore, and he's almost certainly headed for a pro
football career. A onetime junior high school cheerleader, Kelli
can be charming and at times downright kittenish, but she is
clearly most comfortable trying to outmacho her brothers, father
and fiance. Listen to her and Humphrey joust in what began as a
playful exchange about who can drive a golf ball farther.
"Well, I can beat you at anything but golf," says Humphrey,
throwing down the gauntlet.
"You can't beat me in s---," says Kuehne. "I can kick your ass
in Ping-Pong, I can kick your ass in tennis...."
"When did we ever play tennis?" Humphrey asks plaintively.
"You know I can beat you in soccer," says Kuehne, pointedly
ignoring him. "In basketball, if I had another 18 inches, I
would definitely beat you."
"How can you say you'd beat me in basketball," moans Humphrey.
"You're just pissed because I kicked your ass in hearts last
night," says Kuehne, ending the conversation.
With this gift for repartee, it's no wonder Kuehne is a
broadcast journalism major. She talks of finishing her degree
through correspondence classes and recently trudged through a
drizzle to a makeshift classroom in the bowels of Texas's
Memorial Stadium for a Kinesiology 352 lecture. Humphrey happens
to be enrolled in the same course.
"I don't feel like being in class, baby," he says, squirming in
"Me neither, baby," says Kuehne.
When the lecture commences, Humphrey splits his time between
daydreaming and flicking his gal's ponytail, while Kuehne,
wearing a workout outfit that displays 11 swooshes--a clear
reminder that she doesn't need to be there--dutifully scribbles
notes for both of them.
This symbiosis is the cause of some concern. With Humphrey
anchored to Austin because of football, Kuehne will be seeing
less and less of him in the months to come, as she plans to
spend more time with Haney in Dallas preparing for October's Q
school. She has also begun to play regularly on the
Florida-based Futures tour, where she has a second and a tie for
seventh in two starts. "It's going to be hard; we know that,"
she says. "But we both support what the other is doing. I think
love will prevail, but it's something I worry about a lot."
Hearing a lovesick Kuehne, one remembers that she's only 20, a
fact that's obscured by her precocity. Eight years ago the
Kuehne and Woods families were seated at the head table at an
awards banquet when Earl Woods buttonholed Kelli. "Little
Princess," he asked, "what's the best part of your game?"
"My mind," she shot back.
That remains the case today. The flip side to such an admission
is that Kuehne may not have enough game to become a force on the
LPGA, which is becoming increasingly dominated by big hitters.
She is neither an overwhelming ball-striker nor a short-game
wizard. However, she grew up playing against her brothers. From
the same tees.
"It's been half an hour, and you haven't asked me about Tiger
yet," says Trip Kuehne. "I'm impressed."
Forgive him if he's a little touchy, because Kuehne is destined
to be remembered as the Ralph Branca to Woods's Bobby Thomson.
Some say it was the U.S. Amateur final in August 1994 that began
the Woods phenomenon, when the skinny 17-year-old stormed back
from 5 down on the final 12 holes to win what was, at the time,
the most significant victory of his career. Kuehne, despite his
otherworldly 66 in the morning round at the diabolical Stadium
Course at the TPC at Sawgrass, and despite seven straight clutch
pars on the back nine in the afternoon, was sent to the showers
"It was golf played at the highest level," says Woods, who
became fast friends with all the Kuehne kids on the junior golf
circuit and is still occasionally the family's houseguest.
Calling from the cell phone in his Mercedes 500 SL, Woods adds,
"My career changed, and his did too." Woods used the Amateur as
a springboard for professional stardom; for Kuehne that day
helped convince him that golf should remain his love, not his
"He left it all out there, and it was a devastating loss," says
Ernie Kuehne. "He learned for the first time that you can play
your best and it might not be good enough. It took a lot of the
love of playing golf out of him."
The burnout was amplified by the wild ride that followed the
Amateur, when Kuehne crammed many of his lifelong golfing dreams
into a four-month period in mid-1995. He played in the Masters
(the finalists at the Amateur are invited), led Oklahoma State
as a junior to the NCAA championship, won the Ben Hogan Award
for athletic and academic excellence ("the Heisman of college
golf," says Kuehne) and donned the Stars and Stripes in the
Walker Cup, amateur golf's version of the Ryder Cup. Then he was
expected to do it all over again his senior season. "I was a
miserable individual last year," says Trip, which is short for
Triple, which is short for Ernest William Kuehne III. "Before I
decided [to remain an amateur], when I was playing all the time,
golf was work. I had success, I played well, but I think I'll do
better now that every time I go out there, golf is fun and I
enjoy the privilege."
Kuehne began to see the light early in his college career, when
he was part of the powerhouse Arizona State program. After
earning second-team All-Pac-10 as a freshman, he blew out the
rotator cuff in his left shoulder at the start of the following
season and had to redshirt. "I realized then that you can't
always bank on golf," he says. An A student, Trip had four B's
during his first two semesters at Arizona State, which caused a
bit of a to-do in the Kuehne household. He made 4.0 during his
redshirt year and then transferred to Oklahoma State, where as a
psychology major with a business minor, and as a grad student,
he had one B in four years. "And I got screwed!" he says,
launching into an elaborate explanation.
Kuehne was twice an Academic All-America as well as the first
athlete ever to be named Oklahoma State's outstanding student.
With his credentials Kuehne could surely have gone to work for a
top firm on Wall Street, a prospect that had fascinated him
since he was a kid. The Kuehnes used to make an annual visit to
Manhattan, where Trip always insisted on a pilgrimage to the New
York Stock Exchange so he could peer down on the trading floor
and all its hustle and bustle. But fearing his golf game would
go into hibernation in the chilly Northeast, Kuehne chose to
begin his career with White Rock Capital. His soon-to-be
employers are so tickled to have obtained his services as a
market analyst that they will allow him to play a full slate of
amateur tournaments this summer.
As he builds toward the biggest of the bunch, the U.S. Amateur
in August, Kuehne will have a chance to tread in the world he
left behind when he attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open. (Last
year he made the cut at the Open on the strength of a
second-round 69 and was just one over on the weekend, finishing
"There are no regrets, no second-guessing," Kuehne says.
"Amateur golf is so competitive, the courses we play on are so
good, it's like being on Tour except the season lasts three
months, not 12, and the golf is still fun. At least a
five-footer won't be the difference between eating steak for
dinner or eating beans. I could make it on Tour if I gave 110
percent--there's no doubt in my mind. I'd even go so far as to
say I'd be one of the top 30 players in the world. But it takes
a total commitment. It has to be all that you want to do, and
it's not what I want to do."
"Tripper has the game to play out here," says Woods, citing
Kuehne's punch off the tee, sharp iron play and grit. "I think
he has other priorities."
Indeed. "I don't want to be away from her," says Kuehne, cocking
his head toward Dusti, who's making lunch in the kitchen of
their Stillwater town house. "Down the line I want to have a
relationship with my kids like I did with my dad. I want to be
at every sporting event supporting them. You miss out on so much
when you live your life on the road."
Hank Kuehne wasn't drunk, not yet, but he was heading down that
road, and fast.
It was the starless night of Feb. 3, 1995, and Kuehne, a
freshman at Oklahoma State, was roaring down a dirt back road on
the outskirts of Stillwater, heading for a bar called Tumbleweed
and another date with a bottle. An alcoholic since he was 13, he
had never been in worse shape. "At that point," he says, "I was
drinking a case of beer and a fifth of whiskey every single
day." Typical Kuehne. He had to be the best at whatever he did,
even at getting drunk.
Kuehne had quaffed a couple of beers at home before he and two
buddies lit out for the 'Weed, and he was going at least 65 mph
on a road that shouldn't be driven at half that speed. He never
saw the stop sign or the other car. The last thing Kuehne
remembers is hearing the Pearl Jam lyric "Can't find a better
man." When he came to, there was a bright light in his face. The
presence of a celestial being? Actually, it was a camera crew
from Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, there to document the
damage. All three passengers in the other car were hospitalized,
though the most severe injury was a broken leg. Kuehne's two
companions escaped with cuts and bruises. He hadn't been so
lucky, fracturing four ribs on his left side.
"At that point in my life I didn't care whether I lived or
died," says Kuehne. "I really didn't. I was a waste of human
life, a piece of s---, really. Honestly, at times I thought it
would be good just to get rid of me so I wouldn't have to deal
with any of this anymore, and my family wouldn't have to deal
Something remarkable has happened in the two years since
Kuehne's life crashed. He has reclaimed himself and his family
as well. Along the way he has found salvation in the game that
for so long bedeviled him. "My passion and happiness in life is
golf," he says. Says Trip, "Henry has traded one addiction for
As a child, as now, Hank was an exceptional athlete and
extremely bright, yet he never seemed to live up to
expectations. "I knew I was different from [Trip and Kelli]," he
says. "In what sense, they had no idea, and neither did I,
really." Hank apparently suffered from attention deficit
disorder, but it went undiagnosed until his freshman year in
college. Looking back, it's not hard to find the clues. "Trip
and I loved to practice," says Kelli. "We would stand at the
range and hit balls for hours. Henry couldn't stand it--all he
wanted to do was go play."
The differences were even more pronounced when it came to
academics. Kuehne also had a mild case of dyslexia and
difficulty understanding what he heard, conditions that also
went unrecognized. "I'd beat myself up about the schoolwork,"
says Hank. "No matter how hard my dad or anyone was on me, it
wasn't even close to how hard I was on myself."
At 13 Kuehne found a release from the pressure and the
frustration. "That first time when you get drunk," he says,
"it's the most unbelievable experience in the world. All your
problems are gone, just like that." Kuehne's need to escape was
intensified by a pronounced depression that followed the suicide
of his best friend when they were in junior high. If his
drinking occasionally got him into mischief, it was naively
shrugged off by the family as simply Henry being Henry.
It wasn't hard for Hank to live a lie, because he was, by all
accounts, gifted at spinning yarns. A classic example came
during his senior year in high school, when he got into a fight
in a bar in downtown Dallas. Kuehne's head was rammed through
the screen of a TV, resulting in a nasty cut on the back of his
head. His teeth were pushed through his lower lip, and the bursa
sac in his elbow burst when he was slammed against a brick wall.
He convinced his parents that the injuries occurred when he
slipped while jogging in the rain. "Everything he did and said
back then was a total con job," says Ernie.
That all changed in the wake of the accident. Confronted with
the most sobering evidence yet that he had lost control of his
life, Hank checked into the Hazelden Center for Youth and
Families in Plymouth, Minn., seven days after the crash. He
would be there for three months. "To get better you have to
learn to stop running from the pain," says Hank. "You have to
confront all of your problems when all you want to do is to run,
to hide, to get away. It hurt so much to do that, but it's an
amazing thing when you come through the other side. I'm 21 years
old, but I know more about myself than most people do before
Wiping the slate clean after Hazelden, Kuehne moved back home
and transferred to nearby Collin County Community College. With
his thirst quenched and his home life stable, everything else
quickly fell into place. Ritalin brought his studying into focus
much the way a pair of glasses corrects poor eyesight. After one
semester in junior college, Kuehne transferred to SMU, where he
had a 3.2 GPA last term. And after going four months without
touching a club because of the broken ribs and the Minnesota
winter, Kuehne threw himself back into the game. "When I got out
of rehab, all I did was play golf," he says. "Thirty-six holes a
day, every day, at the very least. That was my life."
Kuehne has been able to convert his passion into performance. He
ran away with the Southwest Conference championship last year,
just a week after Kelli won the women's SWC title, and this year
he set four course records, firing a 62 and three 63s. What
makes him so explosive? "Henry's longer than Tiger," says Kelli,
"and Tiger'll tell you that too."
"Definitely, without a doubt," says Woods. "He hits it a lot
farther than I do. Henry is longer than anyone I've ever played
So long, in fact, that some of his deeds sound apocryphal.
Except they're true. At the '96 SWC championship, Kuehne won
without a wood in his bag, choosing instead to blast a one-iron
off the tee. At a tournament in El Paso in February, Kuehne
couldn't find his drive on a 414-yard par-4 hole. His ball was
50 yards over the green. Sure, the hole was downwind and
downhill, but c'mon. "Anybody who hits the ball as far as Henry
does has the chance to be a dominant player," says Woods. "All
he needs to do is learn to play within himself."
"I'm obsessed with becoming the best player I can possibly be,"
says Kuehne. "I don't know if that means I'm going to win 100
majors on Tour or I never finish better than 21st. I don't care
which of the two it is as long I know I did everything I could
to maximize my ability. I've been blessed with a second chance
in life, and I'm not going to blow it."
As the Kuehnes continue to crisscross the golf landscape, once
in a great while their paths converge. So it was on a recent
Sunday afternoon in McKinney. Trip and Dusti had come down from
Stillwater to visit, barely catching Hank, who was off to
Houston that night for a tournament, and Kelli and Jay, who were
due back in Austin in short order. To no one's surprise, the
entire clan wound up passing the better part of the day at a
nearby driving range.
Dusti and Pam wound up kibitzing in the background while Kelli
worked methodically through a big pile of balls. Next to her,
Hank and Trip engaged in a trash-talking, titanium-denting
long-drive contest that drew the attention of the entire range.
Ernie, meanwhile, prowled behind his three kids, alternately
encouraging ("That'll get the cash"), chiding ("Swing a little
harder, All-America") and tweaking ("You oughtta take another
six months off, pal").
There was a moment on that driving range when the jocularity
died down, the conversation hit a lull and all that was left
were the three Kuehne kids, side by side, hitting golf balls.