The Links That Bind

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

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

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