Share this article

print logo

AMATEUR CHAMPION TRIUMPHS OVER PERSONAL DEMONS

PITTSFORD -- When the 98th U.S. Amateur championship began a week ago, the shadows of Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar, the two best amateurs in the world, hovered over the marathon event.

Sunday afternoon when it ended, long after Garcia and Kuchar had been eliminated and Hank Kuehne was crowned champion, a massive shadow remained over the Oak Hill Country Club: John Daly's.

The 22-year-old Kuehne's match-play victory over 44-year-old Tom McKnight was more than an exciting duel for an honored title at one of the temples of golf. It was a triumph of the spirit.

It was a bull market-bear market day for Kuehne, whose confidence was buoyant as he took a 3-up lead after the first 18 holes. Almost immediately, he began "leaking oil" in the golfers' jargon. Just as suddenly, his confidence was regained. Kuehne is not a stranger to good fortune, nor to bad.

"I'm one of the luckiest people alive. I learned more about myself at the age of 19 by going through bad experiences than most people do in a lifetime," Kuehne said.

That is not an exaggeration. The new U.S. Amateur champion has been an alcoholic since the age of 13. He's seen a lot worse than a few blown putts and the dissolving of a big lead in a major tournament.

"The worst thing I ever saw was watching John Daly in Vancouver last week," said Kuehne. He meant the sight of tears coursing down the cheeks of the big guy; of the TV camera focusing on the shaking hands of the man who bombarded his way to victory in the PGA Championship and the British Open; the sight of Daly, bundled in two jackets on a day when the temperature reached the mid-80s, steadying himself to make a birdie putt.

"I've never had the DTs (delirium tremens)," Kuehne said. "I've never had happen to me what happened to John."

He's been close.

"When I was in middle school, I was drinking every weekend," he said. "In junior high school, it was five times a week. I had a cooler in my car."

Kuehne's older brother, Trip, who caddied for him at Oak Hill, has had his share of disappointment, too, but on the golf course. It was Trip who was the victim when Tiger Woods won the first of his three U.S. Amateur titles in 1994. At one point, Trip had a six-hole lead, and still held a four-hole lead as the two began the final 18. Tiger never led until the 35th hole.

That was insignificant compared to the disappointment of picking up after his kid brother.

"When he enrolled at Oklahoma State, he was a complete monster, always in trouble," admitted Trip, an outstanding student as well as a top golfer for the Cowboys. "I'd have to go around and talk to his teachers, solve his problems."

Trip wasn't the only member of the family frustrated by Hank. His sister, Kelli, twice winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur championship, now plays on the LPGA tour and phoned Sunday to get the details of her brother's victory.

"I saw them play the 17th (the final hole of Hank's match) and when he won, I broke into tears," admitted Kelli. She, like Trip, knew of Hank's drinking problem back in high school, something their parents never confronted.

"Sure I talked to him about it," said Kelli. "I was a year behind him and we went to some of the same places. I saw it. I told him he was drinking too much. But he was a senior and I was a junior. Besides, we were a golfing family and we got away with things."

Things changed on Feb. 3, 1995.

"That was the night I had a real bad car accident," Hank Kuehne said. That's "real bad" as in driving through a stop sign at a speed twice the limit while drunk and broadsiding another car. Luckily, no one was killed. The worst injury was a broken leg suffered by a passenger in the other vehicle.

When Trip came home that night, there was a message on his machine from the police. Hank was in jail.

"I could do nothing," said Trip. "Suddenly, his older brother couldn't bail him out and he had to sit in the drunk tank. I picked him up at 11 the next morning. I said 'I love you Hank, but you have to get better.' I was crying. He was crying."

For Hank, it was the lowest point in his young life. "I didn't care if I lived or died," he said.

Two weeks later, Hank was admitted to Hazelden, the famous rehabilitation hospital in Minnesota. His roommate was a guy who had undergone body piercing in 83 places.

"Basically, they teach you how to trade one addiction for another," Trip said. "John Daly, unfortunately, has traded his drinking addiction for smoking or candy or Cokes. My little brother traded his for golf.

"When he first got out of rehab, he played 54 holes a day. He constantly got better."

The automobile accident occurred 40 months ago this week. Kuehne, who now plays for Southern Methodist, hasn't had a drink of alcohol since. Like most people who suffer from his sickness, he refers to himself as a recovering alcoholic. "I'll be an alcoholic for the rest of my life," he said.

"I think people can learn from Hank's addiction," Trip said. "There are millions of people who have a chemical dependency. It doesn't mean you're a weak person or a bad one. It means you have a problem. You're only weak if you don't address it. If Hank can help to save one person, it would be worthwhile."

Kuehne's name is now added to some of the greatest in the history of golf who also won this championship: Jones, Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods, O'Meara. In the perspective of Trip Kuehne, it's more important that his brother is at the head of another list.

"In his class of 100 at Hazelden," Trip said of his beloved Hank, "he's the only one who hasn't relapsed."

There are no comments - be the first to comment