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A Cut Above
Michael Bamberger
April 19, 1999
The amateur class of '99 had the most weekend warriors in 14 years and the next Spaniard most likely to succeed
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April 19, 1999

A Cut Above

The amateur class of '99 had the most weekend warriors in 14 years and the next Spaniard most likely to succeed

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The heady talk started on Wednesday night at the amateur dinner. Charlie Yates—lifelong friend to Bobby Jones, a lifetime amateur—fixed his pale and watery eyes upon those in attendance, buttoned his green coat and gave his pep talk. Yates, 85 and a participant in the first Masters, has presided over this dinner for 51 years and always says pretty much the same thing. He talks about how much Jones cherished the role of the amateur in the tournament, how a couple of amateurs, Billy Joe Patton and Ken Venturi, contended for the title some years back and how wonderful it would be for that to happen again. Yates doesn't bother with the barren times, the five years, three of them in the '90s, in which no amateur trophy was awarded because no amateur made the cut. Instead, in his remarks this year, he focused on Matt Kuchar, the Georgia Tech junior who played the '98 Masters in level par, finishing 21st and thereby earning a repeat invitation. Yates told the amateurs competing in this year's Masters that they were the best group the tournament had ever assembled.

Take a look at the '99 talent brigade: British Amateur champ Sergio García, 19; Trevor Immelman, 19, winner of the U.S. Public Links; Kuchar, 20, who finished among the top 24 in last year's U.S. Open as well as the Masters; 23-year-old Hank Kuehne, the U.S. Amateur champion; Tom McKnight, 44, who lost to Kuehne in the Amateur final; and John (Spider) Miller, 48 and the U.S. Mid-Am winner. On Sunday no one from this sixsome was competing for the green jacket, although four of them—the most to survive the cut since 1985—were still around to compete for the silver cup awarded to the low amateur.

There were thrilling moments even for the two men who spent the weekend as spectators. For the first two rounds Miller was paired with his hero, Arnold Palmer, as he had been in the '97 Masters. Miller, a Hoosier who works in the beer-distribution business, shot a pair of 81s, disappointing, to be sure, but an improvement by a stroke over his 36-hole total from two years ago.

Then there was Kuehne. When wasn't he thrilling? Last Thursday he hit his inaugural tee shot over the trees that mark the left side of the 1st fairway and over the adjoining 9th fairway. His ball finally concluded its spectacular journey in the trees off the 8th fairway. Stepping off the tee, he was consoled by one of his playing partners—the defending champ, Mark O'Meara, himself a former U.S. Amateur winner—who spoke of his own opening-shot adventure in his first Masters, in 1980. Buoyed by this chat, Kuehne saved par on number 1. Then on 2 he hit a yawning, drawing 345-yard tee shot—with a three-wood. On Friday he reached number 8, 550 uphill yards playing into the wind, with a driver and a three-iron. Nobody else reached the green with an iron that day.

Kuehne, a senior at SMU, opened with a 74 and through 27 holes was still two over and looked certain to make the cut. He had dozens of family members and friends traipsing after him, and they savored his good play because they know what he has endured. Kuehne suffers from depression, attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia. He is an alcoholic, recovering division. He wears a gold key around his neck. "It's a key to a new beginning," Kuehne says. "Recovery. A reminder of where I've been."

Recovery is a big part of Kuehne's golf game, too, but nobody can recover from the pond that guards the 15th green. Kuehne's back-nine 42 on Friday left him at 152 for two rounds. Others seemed disappointed for him, but Kuehne didn't seem disappointed for himself. "I've never been inside the ropes here. I've never been outside the ropes," he said. "Now I get to experience both." He spent the weekend the way Yates did, rooting for the amateurs.

On Sunday the four left in the field held a competition within the competition. Mc-Knight, playing as well as any part-time golfer in his first Masters could possibly play, was four over through three rounds. Kuchar was one back and paired with McKnight. García was six over, Immelman 10.

Kuchar looked like the man to beat. He started the week ill, with flulike symptoms, his toothy grin in hibernation. He and his father-caddie were not merrily striding down the fairways, as they had a year ago. Kuchar opened with a 77 and looked like he'd be gone. He turned an 80 into a 71 by taking 22 putts on Friday. By Saturday, healthy again, he shot 73.

But Kuchar skanked a few shots coming in on Sunday, as did McKnight, and they shot 78 and 77, respectively. That opened the door for García, who was killing drives and holing putts while shooting 73. His goals were to win the tournament, make the cut and be the low amateur. He realized two of them. He's a determined kid who plays like a man. "It's a great résumé he's compiling," Kuchar said of García.

Heading to the locker room after his round, García bumped into Fred Couples, who put an arm around him and welcomed him to the big leagues. The young Spaniard then set himself in front of a TV to watch another Spaniard, José María Olazábal, win his second green jacket. When Olazábal won in '94, García was 14 and already planning his next steps. He's still planning.

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