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."
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 different terms.
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 amateur.
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 gel nil 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."