The Links That Bind

For Texas’ Kuehne kids, excelling at golf is par for the course—and the least their father will accept.

September 1997By Comments

IT’S ONLY THE FIRST DAY of the first tournament of his baby daughter Kelli’s professional golfing career, but already Ernie Kuehne, successful Dallas trial lawyer and sports father extraordinaire, has gotten himself worked up. Across the fairway, partly obscured by the restless gallery, Kelli lines up her shot, a midiron to a heavily guarded green ringed with menacing sinkholes of Florida’s finest white sand. Petite but square-shouldered, she has her father’s features—strong cheekbones, dark eyebrows, a piercing gaze—but her bright blueberry nail polish and the goofy orange Longhorn puppet on the head cover of her driver remind you she’s not even 21, still only a sophomore at the University of Texas.

Kelli swings, a simple, efficient pass. The ball takes off above the pines, full of hope for an instant, before it drops awkwardly onto the beach with a powdery splash. Kelli sags visibly, and the sympathetic gallery groans with her, while Ernie Kuehne’s handsome, round, flush-of-success face turns another shade of florid. “Every shot, she’s got her hands back like this,” he growls, his wrists cocked sharply in a rough pantomime of his daughter’s swing.

More than any other sport, golf is a game of generational transfer, passed on from parent to child. Golf is complex and counterintuitive, a game of sophisticated equipment and elaborate playing fields, with hardly a casual pickup aspect to it. Like Masters and PGA champion Jack Burke, Jr., whose father was the head pro at Houston’s River Oaks; like Homero Blancas, who once shot a 55 and whose father was a greenskeeper at River Oaks; like Ben Crenshaw, whose dad, Charlie, was a fine player—young players often learn from or through their fathers. Some parts of golf parenting are straightforward: the learning of skills, basic etiquette, the tricks of competition. But the deeper chambers of the inner game require a more delicate balance between the simple nurturing of enjoyment and the forced cultivation of ambition.

In an era when sports parenting has become its own road to fame or infamy, Ernie Kuehne (pronounced “KEE-nee”) is the latest from the drive-them-and-they-will-drive school. Since the three Kuehne kids—Trip, Hank, and Kelli—were little, Ernie and his wife, Pam, have vigorously managed their golfing careers, producing an athletic miracle. Through a remarkable confluence of talent and opportunity, all three have become major stars, leading the Dallas Morning News to label the Kuehnes “Texas’ First Family of Golf.”

Trip, the eldest at 25, who has Tom Cruise—like good looks and the effortless rectitude of an astronaut, led Highland Park High School to three straight state high school championships while winning two individual state titles himself, captained Oklahoma State to an NCAA championship, and came within a whisker of defeating Tiger Woods in the finals of the U.S. Amateur two years ago. Hank, 21, swarthy, deep-voiced, the brawniest of the three, is a college All-American at Southern Methodist University and is touted by his coach, renowned golf guru Hank Haney—who has tutored all the Kuehne kids through his Dallas-area golf centers—as having the most pro potential of any college player in America. Kelli may be the best of the bunch. A four-time state high school champion, she won the last two U.S. Amateurs, as well as last year’s British Amateur, leading one writer to call her “the female Tiger Woods.”

By the end of the first day of her first tournament, though, it’s clear the pressure has gotten to Kelli. She has chewed her way through half a dozen packs of gum, even slipped off into the trees to smoke a cigarette, but nothing can cure the slight miscuing of her iron shots. Her lapses seem forgivable: In this unusual event, the JCPenney Classic, the women and men are coupled, and she’s paired with the red-hot Tiger Woods himself—a friend of Kelli’s for several years—and the scrambling galleries he attracts. She’s also playing in the same foursome as Australian Karrie Webb, last year’s LPGA player of the year. And there’s the little matter of the contract: Kelli has just signed a reported $1.3 million deal with Nike, the largest endorsement contract ever awarded to a female golfer.

Reasons aplenty for a rough day on the greens, but Ernie Kuehne is a no-excuses kind of guy and runs his family by the same rules. “I’m surprised. I’m disappointed,” he says, as he walks grim-faced from the scorer’s tent at the end of the day, “but I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. Kelli Kuehne choked. You could put it like she didn’t seize the moment or something, but the fact is she just plain choked.”

If this seems harsh, Ernie Kuehne wants you to know it’s just part of the family way. “I have a very simple philosophy of parenting,” he says. “You let them know when they did something good, and you let them know when they did something bad. I’m just not a believer, in life or in athletics, that you tell somebody they did good when they didn’t. It’s not okay to lose sometimes. It’s just not okay. And even though you can’t win all the time, there are times when you beat yourself, and I am troubled by that.”

By the second day of the JCPenney (in which the Kuehne-Woods team will eventually finish a close second), Kelli has steadied her game and her nerves. After a long birdie putt, she indulges in some playful high fives with Tiger Woods, and her father acknowledges grudgingly, “At least we’re not choking our chilis today.” On the final hole she drills a hundred-yard wedge to within two feet of the cup. Ernie just turns away with a sly smile, as if to say, “What did you expect? That’s my little girl.”

Two months later, on a cold winter’s day in Dallas, a fluttery, uncertain snowfall lands on the practice range at Hank Haney’s Golf Center at City Place. With the golf balls flying out and the snow falling down, the whole scene looks like one of those Christmas snow domes, the perfect gift for a golf fanatic. The Kuehne clan arrives en masse to hit a few balls, all except for Ernie, who’s gone ahead to Hawaii to check out the course for Hank’s next tournament.

Kelli, fresh from a brunch celebrating her debut as a Dallas Symphony Deb the night before, is wearing a black halter-top cocktail dress that shows off her buff, nicely V-shaped upper body, and her high heels give an extra flex to her pumped-up calves. She’s sporting the same blueberry nail polish, a color called Manic, she says with a giggle. When I ask why a golf pro would bother making her debut, she shrugs, wrinkling her cocky tomboy grin: “Even when I was a little girl, Dad always said, ‘I want Kelli to be a debutante.’”

Pam Kuehne smiles warmly on hearing this, comfortably aware, it seems, that Ernie is a force in this family even when he’s a few thousand miles away. With a jock’s pedigree of her own—she played basketball and tennis in high school, and her father was a baseball coach—Pam is an important cog in the Kuehne family machine, which approaches the solitary sport of golf as a kind of five-person team game. Mom is in charge of lugging drinks and bandages, coordinating cellular communication and score updates when the kids are playing in different tournaments at the same time, and keeping everyone’s schedule in color-coded markers on her master calendar. Under her tutelage, with Ernie in Hawaii, the family seems to have a lighter, more playful feel.

Hank, who escorted Kelli to the deb ball, heads out to the covered stalls of the driving range to powder some white spheroids with Kelli’s boyfriend, Jay Humphrey, a starting offensive lineman on the UT football team. Unlike the massive Humphrey, whose stiff passes at the ball produce a series of wicked slices, Hank, who’s six feet three and about two hundred pounds himself, has a rhythmic, limber motion, a long, fluid swing, unusual for someone his size. He has a bit of John Daly in him: the explosive sound the ball makes when he hits it, the gentle way his large hands cradle the club, the slightly mischievous, deceptively easy-going manner he cultivates.

Hank’s first drive curves gently to the right, but his second rips dead-straight through the dreamy flurries, reaching toward the distant Central Expressway as if it were bound for Waco. “If he can keep it straight like that,” Kelli says, “he can make it on the pro tour.” His next effort screams out, hangs a left, and crashes into a faraway grove of trees.

“Hank’s a very imaginative player,” Pam Kuehne says. “If Kelli’s ball is in a tree, she just takes her penalty stroke and goes on, but Hank will try to hit it out of the tree. Of course, he gets into a lot more trees than Kelli.” And not just on the course. While his siblings appear to glide through life in fairy-tale fashion, Hank has made a series of crash landings in school (where he’s struggled with attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, as well as depression), on the course, and after hours. Two years ago Hank crashed his car into a tree, “on my way to another bar,” as he confesses, leaving him with four broken ribs and shaking him up enough to confront what had been his deep, dark secret: He’d been a heavy drinker since he was fifteen. In a move the family says was solely Hank’s, he checked into a Hazelden clinic in Minnesota for rehab.

Hank has a gentle voice, a slouching posture, a tentativeness the others lack. He was described as “a laid-back free spirit, a party animal” in one story, but the truth about him probably runs deeper. Though he has trouble assuming the never-in-doubt mask of his father, there’s an admirable bravery in the way he talks about his problems. “I’m not ashamed I’m an alcoholic,” he says. “I’m just built a little bit differently from everybody else. Last Monday was my anniversary. I’ve been sober for two years.”

When I ask if he’s planning to turn pro, his siblings answer before he can. “He’s there!” Trip says. “He’s going for it.” Hank just smiles shyly, admits they’re right. “People can say I don’t work hard,” he says, “but there’s nobody who has more desire. You don’t shoot sixty-three when you don’t care, you know what I mean?”

The subject of turning pro is a melancholic one these days for Trip, who spent most of his life as the Golden Boy, the star athlete, an A student, the sure thing. After two years of agonizing, Trip has decided to forgo the pro tour. He has joined a Dallas money-management firm that is encouraging him to continue polishing his golf game while he learns the business, and he still hopes to play at the top amateur level. He could probably make a living on the pro tour; there are lesser players out there. But, he wonders, would it be worth the cost? Though Ernie has been quoted in the Dallas papers as discouraging his son from turning pro, Trip insists the choice was all his. “If anything, my dad wavered more than I did,” he says. “If I shot sixty-five, he’d say, ‘You ought to go pro,’ but the next day, when I shot seventy-eight, he’d say, ‘You better get a job.’” He seems at peace with his choice: “Maybe one hundred years from now,” he says wistfully, “someone will say, ‘Hey, Trip Kuehne changed amateur golf; he made it cool to not turn pro.’”

For her part, Kelli might feel a full share of qualms about making the opposite choice. She has been diabetic since age ten and knows that her condition may prevent her from playing in every tournament she wants to. At the same time, despite her lucrative endorsement contracts, she faces a difficult road her first year on tour, only able to enter a handful of tournaments (through special sponsors’ exemptions) before she attempts to gain her LPGA tour card this fall at qualifying school, all while she tries to balance her studies at UT and frets about being away from her boyfriend. And there are the minor annoyances too, like critical comments made by fellow pro Juli Inkster about how deserving Kelli is of her endorsement money and the ludicrous tabloid stories, printed in England and the U.S., that had her in a catfight with buxom swimsuit model Tyra Banks over Tiger Woods.

Even so, Kelli seems doubt free, Ernie-style, about her choice. “Why would I sit in an office,” she says, “when I can make a fine living playing golf? I’m not brilliant like Trip. I’ve never been driven to excel in school.” Despite her struggles in her first few months as a pro, few would bet against Kelli Kuehne in the long run. “Trip probably has the most physical talent of the three,” Hank Haney says. “And Hank is the most powerful player, the longest hitter, and plays with great feel. But Kelli is the strongest mentally. She has a superb work ethic and a great mind for the game.”

As the snow flurries dwindle, the sky begins to lighten to the west. The three Kuehne kids are all on the range now—Kelli has changed out of her cocktail dress and into golf clothes—teasing one another in jock talk, in which Kelli is the most fluent, reminiscing about the agonies of watching one another compete: like when Trip had Tiger Woods down on the final nine holes of the U.S. Amateur, only to see the title slip away or when Kelli stumbled through her nervous early rounds at the JCPenney.

Like any good family drama, the story of the Kuehne kids is open to interpretation. Is theirs a slice of the American Dream pie or a cautionary tale about the dangers awaiting precocious athletes? Will Kelli fulfill her promise? Can Hank not only stay on the wagon but also ride on to PGA stardom? Can Trip find happiness off the tour? As Hank Kuehne slams another drive toward the horizon, all three Kuehne kids follow it with their eyes as one, squinting into the winter haze, as if peering into their own futures.

Michael DiLeo is a freelance writer living in Austin.

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