The cellular phone was handed to Kelli Kuehne at about four o'clock as she stood behind the 18th green at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Her older brother Trip was on the other end of the line, back home in McKinney, Texas. As Kuehne took the phone from her mother, she beamed, then chatted for a moment with her brother. "I can't really talk right now," she said. "There are all these people around." In fact, there were about a hundred people around, and they were all waiting for the 18-year-old golfer with the sweet swing to step up to the podium and accept the USGA's slender silver cup as the 95th U.S. Women's Amateur champion.
For Kuehne, who last week became only the fourth female in 47 years to double as a U.S. Girls' Junior champion (1994) and a Women's Amateur champion, her 4-and-3 victory over Anne Marie Knight in the 36-hole final was more than just an individual triumph. It was an exorcism by proxy. In the '94 U.S. Amateur final at the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Trip, then a junior at Oklahoma State, lost to Tiger Woods after squandering a six-hole lead with 12 holes to play. The loss was devastating not only to Trip but to Kelli, who followed him around the course that day. "I felt like I played every hole with Trip," Kuehne reflected last Friday, on the eve of her own final. "And I've been replaying it all in my mind the whole time I've been here." Asked whether winning the Women's Amateur would be a kind of cosmic payback, Kuehne flashed a Texas-wide smile and said, "You betcha."
If the golf gods showed a sense of justice last week, they also showed a sense of humor when they paired the 6-foot Knight with the 5'2" Kuehne. Although the baby-faced Kuehne may be short in stature, she is long in ambition. And when her competitive fires are stoked—and they always seem to be stoked—she can give off some serious Texas heat, scorching the competition. And sometimes Trip. "We get some scary matches going," Kelli said of the sibling rivalry. "Sometimes he makes me play the men's tees." Kelli thrives on the challenge. "I'm a very intense person," she said. "I've just always wanted to be the best at everything."
She very nearly has been. In four years at Highland Park High School in Dallas, she was undefeated in 20 matches. What makes Kuehne's achievements more remarkable is that she has accomplished them all in spite of the fact she has juvenile diabetes.
Knight's achievements in only 10 weeks in the United States are also remarkable. A 24-year-old resident of Adelaide, Australia, she most recently worked part-time as a salesperson for Nestle coffee before deciding to quit her job to test her competitive golf skills. "All I wanted to do was play golf," she said after winning her semifinal against Wendi Patterson of Atlanta. "And I needed to come here to see what the standard was like." Knight's game has held up well. Four weeks ago she won the Women's Trans National Championship in Kingston Springs, Tenn., defeating Kellee Booth, one of the top-ranked amateurs in the U.S., in the final.
At The Country Club, Knight dispatched her first three opponents without much trouble. Playing in the fourth round against 32-year-old veteran Robin Burke of Houston, Knight was 3 down before rebounding for a 2-and-1 decision. The semifinal against Patterson, a three-time Georgia State Amateur champion, seesawed until Knight closed out the match with an 18th-hole birdie to win 2 up.
Kuehne, meanwhile, was also being extended. After leading 5 up early in her third-round match against Wake Forest junior Laura Philo, Kuehne gave it all back and secured a one-up victory only when Philo three-putted the 18th.
Kuehne, who will attend Texas in the fall, next faced Arizona State sophomore Booth. After falling 2 down on the front, Kuehne rallied with four birdies to win one up and move into the semifinals against Se-Ri Park, a 17-year-old from Seoul, South Korea. Though she was popping Maalox like jelly beans before the match, Kuehne, who had been fighting a virus for several days, birdied five of her last seven holes and won 5 and 4.
When Kuehne arrived for Saturday's final, she was handed a two-page fax. From Trip, it started, "Way to go! I'm so proud of you!" It included a handful of things he had drawn from his own U.S. Amateur experiences. First on Trip's nine-point list was, "You still have a job to do." Second: "Hold your head high and smile at all times."
If Kuehne wasn't exactly smiling on the 1st tee, she was clearly concentrating on the job ahead of her. Her large brown eyes were focused already on a point in the fairway straight ahead. Knight grabbed the first lead with a birdie at the 3rd. It would be her last lead. Kuehne won the next two holes with a birdie and a par and was one up after the morning round.