- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

For 1998 U.S. Amateur champion Hank Kuehne, PGA Tour starts are particularly precious.

The 24-year-old Kuehne, playing his third PGA Tour event of the season at this week's Kemper Open, has chosen the game's most torturous track to tour membership. Kuehne has decided to skip the traditional minitour route to golf's grandest stage and earn his tour playing privileges in just a smattering of starts.

The average exempt player has between 35 and 40 events in which to play his way into the top 125 on the tour's money list and earn his card for the next season. If Kuehne wants to avoid a trip to the tour's grueling three-stage Qualifying School, he will have to accomplish the feat in just seven events, the maximum number of starts a nonexempt player like Kuehne is allowed to make via sponsor's exemptions.

"If you come out here and play well you can make a lot of money very quickly," said Kuehne yesterday. "The fact is, you can solidify your whole year and your future if you have one great event.

"I'm not saying it's easy. I really don't even expect to earn my card in just seven events. I mean, how many guys have done that?"

Exactly four guys have accomplished the feat in the last decade. You might have heard of them Phil Mickelson (1992), Justin Leonard (1994), Tiger Woods (1996) and Sergio Garcia (last year on the European PGA Tour).

That foursome represents the best collection of amateurs to enter the professional fray in eons. Skipping golf's minor leagues simply isn't attempted by mere mortals. Only the game's ultimate prodigies are supposed to have the temerity to take such a bold shortcut to stardom.

According to most insiders, Kuehne qualifies.

The youngest member of golf's first family, Kuehne's career has always been discussed with an unmistakable measure of awe. Brother Trip was an accomplished player who gained acclaim at the 1994 U.S. Amateur as Tiger Woods' first Amateur final victim. Sister Kelli was a two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion (1995-96) and makes her living on the LPGA Tour. But it was always the youngest Kuehne who won the intra-family wars back in Dallas. Hank was always the family's chosen one the Kuehne with the transcendent talent … and unfortunately, the most untamed spirit.

When Kuehne enrolled at Oklahoma State in 1994, he was immediately branded as the next "can't-miss" kid. He started drinking heavily to cope with the burden of expectation. And on Feb. 4, 1995, an alcohol-induced joyride wreck nearly ended his career.

"As I sat drunk in that snowdrift with broken ribs, I thought I'd never play golf again," Kuehne said. "I've been sober ever since. For me it was a pretty simple choice: I thought, 'If you drink, you're going to die.' "

Kuehne spent a month in rehab, then went back home to attend SMU. Three years later, after his All-American junior season, he officially returned to wunderkind status by defeating a field that included Garcia and Matt Kuchar at the 1998 U.S. Amateur.

Earning invites to the 1999 Masters and U.S. Open thanks to that conquest, Kuehne stunned the legendary likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in his first major starts.

"I've never seen anything even close to that guy," said Palmer after watching Kuehne bomb 360-yard drives in a practice round at Augusta National. "He's a lot longer than Tiger. He's absolutely unbelievable."

If Kuehne has a calling card, it's length. Nobody, not Woods, not John Daly, hits it longer than golf's Hammerin' Hank.

Yesterday, Kuehne attracted a crowd as he blasted balls on TPC at Avenel's range. As the moon shots he launched with his Taylor Made driver rattled around in the tops of the trees, which stand 330 yards from the tee, Kuehne provoked gasps from those clustered behind him his fellow pros.

But Kuehne learned the hard way last year after turning pro after the U.S. Open that succeeding on tour takes more than just unparalleled power. He made just $19,869 in eight events and then fought an injury through a futile trip to Q-school.

"It's kind of awkward because people expect you to come out and perform like you did as an amateur, but that doesn't happen," said Kuehne. "The jump from amateur golf to professional golf is huge. It took last summer to get over that, and now I'm finally getting comfortable."

That newfound comfort level is clear from the results of Kuehne's two starts on tour this season. At the Houston Open he carded a first-round 65 to claim a share of the opening-day lead before fading on the weekend. And then three weeks ago at the Byron Nelson Classic, he posted a third-round 64 and wound up in a tie for 13th. Translation: when Kuehne is hot, he can savage a layout.

"I have a lot of tools. I hit the ball a long way, and I make a lot of birdies," said Kuehne. "When I play as well as I can play, I can go as low as anyone."

And Kuehne, who stands 152nd on the money list ($85,656) after just two starts, knows he will have to go low with more consistency to claim his card in just five more starts. He will try to earn an extra start by qualifying for the U.S. Open and has already accepted sponsor's exemptions to the John Deere Classic (July 27-30) and the International (Aug. 3-6).

"He's got lots of power and some touch, too, but it's very hard to play your way on out here like that," said Mark O'Meara, who knows Kuehne through their mutual Dallas-based instructor, Hank Haney. "But I think he could do well, because it's definitely becoming more and more of a power game out here… . He could have one great week and make enough money to get his card."

But Kuehne isn't trying to add any pressure to his situation by focusing on any one week.

"The way I look at it, if I have a great week here at the Kemper and it happens, great. If not, I'm just gaining experience for tour school," said Kuehne. "Compared to dealing with alcoholism, there's no pressure out here. Any time I'm playing badly I just remember that I could be in rehab. My worst day on the golf course is better than best day was drunk."

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