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Second Life
Jaime Diaz
September 07, 1998
After what Hank Kuehne had been through, winning the U.S. Amateur seemed easy
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September 07, 1998

Second Life

After what Hank Kuehne had been through, winning the U.S. Amateur seemed easy

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Hank Kuehne never looks as if he's feeling the heat, but on Sunday, in the tense closing stages of the 36-hole final of the U.S. Amateur, it was easy to assume that the languid 22-year-old was about to crumple. His opponent at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., 44-year-old Tom McKnight, had wiped out Kuehne's early 4-up lead with a putter that had delivered more shocks than a cattle prod, and the claustrophobic Donald Ross course was primed to swallow up a jittery long-ball hitter.

But Kuehne's calm is more than a veneer. He has been steeled by years of real-life pressure. For six years, starting when he was 13, Kuehne was a secret alcoholic. He was also a poor student suffering from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, both of which were undiagnosed. While his over-achieving family—older brother Trip was a Walker Cupper and reached the final of the 1994 U.S. Amateur, while little sister Kelli was a two-time Women's Amateur champ and is now on the LPGA tour—wondered about Henry, the embattled middle child hid behind the superficial pose of carefree party boy in black-sheep's clothing.

"Henry is the feeler in the family, very sensitive to criticism, especially if he sensed he was being called stupid," says his father, Ernie Kuehne. "I didn't understand that. I'm a compulsive, obsessive, controlling, fixated personality. I thought the way I talked to Trip and Kelli would work on Henry, but I was wrong."

While a freshman at Oklahoma State, Hank upped his daily intake of alcohol to a case of beer and a fifth of whiskey. Then, on Feb. 3, 1995, he ran a stop sign on a dirt road outside Stillwater at more than 65 mph. The driver and the two passengers in the car he hit were hospitalized. Kuehne cracked four ribs. No one suffered permanent damage, but the incident caused Kuehne to make a permanent life choice. He entered a three-month alcohol rehabilitation program at the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth, Minn., received treatment for his learning disabilities and opened up to his family. In the ensuing three years Kuehne has stayed sober and is on track to graduate next year from SMU, where he has been a three-time All-America.

So when the light-hitting but pure-putting McKnight, an ex-pro from Galax, Va., who owns a chain of convenience stores, holed nine bombs of more than 15 feet in the first 24 holes to take a one-up lead, Kuehne didn't panic. He didn't flash on Trip's traumatic loss (he blew a 5-up lead) to Tiger Woods in '94, even though Trip, now a securities analyst in Dallas, was his caddie. To Kuehne, the pressure at Oak Hill was well within his comfort zone.

"It wasn't an easy situation, with Tom making all those putts, but if you put it in perspective, it's simple," said Kuehne. "Even if I couldn't have gotten it off the ground, shanked it five times or three-putted every hole—if you think about where I was 3� years ago, it really makes no difference."

Perhaps McKnight sensed the inner strength of his opponent, for just as Kuehne appeared ready to board a runaway bogey train, McKnight, the oldest player to reach the final since 1964, cracked, and the younger player regrouped. McKnight's demise began when he startlingly missed a five-footer for par on the 26th hole to go back to even and continued when he missed par putts from inside 10 feet at the 28th, 29th and 30th holes to fall 3 down. When McKnight rebounded with a 12-footer for birdie at the 31st, Kuehne covered him with a 10-footer of his own. McKnight won the 32nd hole with a par, and after he made a 30-footer for birdie to move to 1 down at the 33rd, Kuehne faced a downhill slider from eight feet at the 34th to keep the match from going even. "I told Henry to be a man and knock it in, and he did," said Trip. "That was as good as it gets anywhere." Kuehne closed out the 2-and-1 victory on the next hole with a conceded birdie.

The victory was a coming-out party. A powerfully athletic 6'2" and 195 pounds, Hank has long been known as the most talented of the Kuehne kids. The speed at which his body rotates on the forward swing is comparable to that of his friend Woods, although both agree that Hank is longer. "I don't know if I can catch John Daly, though," says Kuehne. More than any other amateur's, Kuehne's overall game is similar to those of the three young players who have had the greatest impact on the Tour—Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson.

Kuehne outshone the two biggest stars in the amateur ranks, defending champ Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia of Spain, who won the British Amateur in June. When those two met in the quarterfinals, Garcia's superior power provided an important edge, and the Spaniard won 2 and 1.

Garcia was more mistake-prone in his semifinal loss to McKnight, which set up the final between two players who have opposite styles but became good friends. "You can't not like Henry," says McKnight. After the morning round, in which McKnight hit only three of the 18 greens in regulation, Kuehne watched him hit balls at lunch, offered some words of encouragement and affectionately rubbed the older man's brush cut. Hours later, their match over, McKnight was the first person to get a bear hug from the victor.

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