Challenging Oakmont hasn't tripped up Kuehne

Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2003

OAKMONT, Pa. He is an anomaly in a sport increasingly motivated by the drive for the PGA dollar, a world-class golfer who plays for championships and not cash.

At 31, Trip Kuehne is almost a senior citizen compared to the college and high school golfers who chase most of amateur golf's major titles. Of the eight U.S. Walker Cup members chosen to date, every one is at least eight years younger than the Dallas-based brokerage firm vice president.

Starting Wednesday, it will be the kids at the U.S. Amateur who will be chasing Kuehne, not the other way around.

Kuehne tied for second among the 64 match-play qualifiers by following up his first-round 69 at the Pittsburgh Field Club a day earlier with a solid, even-par 70 at historic Oakmont Country Club on Tuesday. The only better qualifying score was University of Kentucky star John Holmes' 2-under 138, which included a 2-under 68 Tuesday at the Field Club.

Billy Hurley of Leesburg, Va., shot a 65 Tuesday at the Field Club to join Kuehne at 139, eight strokes better than the cut line of 7-over 147. Fourteen golfers tied at 147 for 12 available spots, so two will be eliminated in a playoff Wednesday morning before the first of the 32 matches begin.

Some notable names missing the cut were two 2002 quarterfinalists, Henry Liaw (152) and Dustin Bray (151), and Walker Cup members Matt Hendrix (148) and Chris Nallen (148).

Billy Haas (143), who lost 1 up in last year's semifinals to eventual champion Ricky Barnes, moved on, as did fellow Walker Cup team members Brock Mackenzie, Ryan Moore, Adam Rubinson and Casey Wittenberg.

Wittenberg, the nation's top-ranked amateur, bounced back from an 8-over 78 Monday at Oakmont to shoot a 3-under 67 Tuesday at the much-shorter Field Club.

There was no drama either day for Kuehne, who is asked almost daily why one of the biggest hitters in golf, pro or amateur, plays not for big dollars, but personal satisfaction.

The answer is the U.S. Amateur.

''There's no doubt about it, the one more thing for me to win is a USGA championship then, it's a great career,'' Kuehne said Tuesday. ''Until I do that, I can't be satisfied. The younger guys out here are getting better and better.''

A decade ago, he was one of those confident, can't-beat-me kids. At age 22, he was 6 up over Tiger Woods through 13 holes of their 36-hole U.S. Amateur final in 1994 at Sawgrass, only to lose 2 up.

If he had won, he undoubtedly would have turned pro. Once he didn't, he became his generation's version of Jay Sigel, the 1982 and 1983 U.S. Amateur champion who didn't become a pro until joining the Senior PGA Tour at age 50. Namely, a golfer whose other life pursuits work and family became more important than pro golf.

Kuehne admittedly got by on pure talent for years; he is the brother of Hank Kuehne, the 1998 U.S. Amateur champion who plays on the PGA Tour, and Kelli Kuehne, the U.S. Women's Amateur champion in 1995 and 1996, who plays on the LPGA Tour.

He began to refocus on his game three years ago, after he decided he wanted his infant son Will to see him play at a high level in person, not just on a grainy, years-old video tape.

''I dedicated myself to golf,'' he said. ''I practice two hours a day and I've spent more time on my putting in the last two years than I did in the previous 20.''

Kuehne feels better prepared than ever to win what he calls the last remaining major amateur title available to the Kuehne clan. He probably has played Oakmont more than any other qualifier, an estimated 25-30 times. He respects arguably the fastest and most unforgiving greens in golf, but doesn't fear them.

''I'm in a lot more control of my emotions than I was 10 years ago,'' he said. ''I took golf for granted and didn't work at it too hard.''

He also realized that simply being the longest hitter he routinely hits his driver 325 to 350 yards doesn't guarantee he'll be the biggest winner.

''Everybody now can hit it 300 yards,'' he said. ''It's who can hit the longest, straightest driver ... and who can putt (that decides champions). It took me a lot of soul searching to figure that out.''

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