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HARD-HITTING KUEHNE CAPTURES U.S. AMATEUR

One last mighty tee shot put the exclamation point on Hank Kuehne's victory Sunday at the U.S. Amateur championship.

It came on the 458-yard 17th hole, as Kuehne (pronounced kee-nee) was clinging to a one-hole advantage in his match with Tom McKnight.

Kuehne disdained caution, grabbed his driver and ripped a cloud-scraping, 311-yard drive into the fairway. The shot had to soar 280 yards on the fly just to clear a tall forest of trees on the corner of the dogleg.

"I handed him the driver," said Kuehne's caddie and brother, Trip, "and said, 'Pick a spot and hit it there.' And then I thought . . . 'Please hit it there, because if you don't, it's going to be a disaster.' "

It was a shot only a handful of amateurs or PGA Tour pros could hit, and it demonstrated the main reason Kuehne claimed the U.S. title at Oak Hill Country Club.

Talent.

The 22-year-old Kuehne had too much of it for the 44-year-old McKnight to overcome. McKnight put on a miraculous display of putting, but Kuehne hit it longer, straighter and purer in scoring a 2-and-1 decision.

The victory capped a great comeback in the life of Kuehne, a senior at Southern Methodist University. His college golf career almost was ruined by alcoholism. He nearly killed himself 3 1/2 years ago in a car accident caused by drunken driving, and he has been sober ever since.

"This is the second-greatest victory of my life," Kuehne said. "Sobriety is definitely No. 1, and no matter what I do for the rest of my golfing career, there's nothing that can ever knock that out of being my greatest victory."

It's hard to assess the pro prospects for most amateurs, but Kuehne was one of the few at Oak Hill this past week who look like they are assured of PGA Tour stardom.

Matt Kuchar looks like a Davis Love, with more personality. Sergio "El Nino" Garcia looks like a cross between David Duval and Jose Maria Olazabal. And Kuehne has the long-hitting and charismatic qualities of Fred Couples. In fact, Kuehne says he is longer off the tee than even Tiger Woods.

"He has all the tools to be a superstar on the PGA Tour," Trip Kuehne said.

Trip knows of what he speaks. In fact, the Kuehne clan of Dallas is the first family of U.S. amateur golf at the moment. Trip, 25, lost to Woods in the '94 U.S. Amateur final. Their sister, Kelli, won the '95 and '96 Women's Amateur and now is on the LPGA Tour.

"Hank has always had more ability than Trip and I both," said Kelli, by phone from Portland, Ore.

Hank Kuehne needed all of his ability to hold off McKnight, a former pro who owns a petroleum distributorship.

A crowd of 10,500 saw Kuehne take a three-hole lead after 18 holes, and McKnight was lucky to be that close. He hit just four fairways and three greens in the morning round but saved himself by taking just 23 putts.

In the afternoon, McKnight birdied four of the first six holes to take a one-hole lead, making putts of 27, 8, 5 and 9 feet.

Asked if he could remember his putter saving him to such a degree, McKnight said, "Yeah, pretty much the last 30 years. I've depended on it for a long time."

Kuehne, meanwhile, had made three bogeys and a double-bogey.

But he got it back together by winning the eighth with a par 4. Then Kuehne took a three-hole lead by winning the 10th through 12th holes as McKnight lost his swing.

With three holes to play, Kuehne still was ahead by one. He missed the 16th green with his approach shot and chipped to 6 feet. He needed to make it to save par and keep his lead.

"That putt on 16 was as good as it gets anywhere -- a 6-footer, left to right," Trip Kuehne said. "He said to me, 'Left edge?' And I said, 'I love it. Step up, be a man and knock it in.' He did it."

Once Kuehne boomed his drive on 17, he was safe because McKnight drove into trouble. Just for good measure, however, Kuehne nuked a pitching wedge from 147 yards to 10 feet. That's where the match ended.

"This is an unbelieveable feeling," Kuehne said. "I'm pretty satisfied with the direction my life has taken and where I am today."

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