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A Long Hitter A Long Journey

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- It didn't take long for Hank Kuehne to live up to his reputation.
The biggest hitter in golf took on the longest hole at Oak Hill -- the 598-yard 13th -- with ease during a practice round. He ripped his driver some 350 yards, then followed that with a 2-iron into the middle of the green.
'I'm pretty much one of only a couple -- if not the only person in the field -- that can actually get there in two,' Kuehne said Monday at the PGA Championship. 'I have to try to take advantage of my strengths.'
That strength is not difficult to figure out.
Just watch the gallery gasp whenever the 27-year-old Kuehne takes a behemoth cut. Just look at how PGA Tour players stop what they're doing when Kuehne removes the head cover of his driver on the practice range.
Look at the statistics.
Kuehne not only leads the PGA Tour in driving distance at 319.8 yards, his drives measure more than 300 yards an astounding 86.5 percent of the time; the tour average in that category is 24.5 percent.
Still, Kuehne says he's not solely about power.
He already has heard some people writing off his chances at Oak Hill, primarily because the fairways are tight and the rough is the thickest at a major in at least five years.
'I think everybody just thinks because I hit it far, I don't hit it straight,' Kuehne said. 'I hit it a lot straighter than anybody really gives me credit for. People look at statistics and don't really know that much about the players and how they play.'
People know this much about Kuehne -- as long as he is off the tee, it took him a longer time to get back to Oak Hill.
Kuehne, a recovering alcoholic, reached the pinnacle of his career five years ago when he beat Tom McKnight to win the 1998 U.S. Amateur.
'I would have told you that you were crazy if I thought it would take me this long to get out here,' Kuehne said. 'One of the things that I've learned through everything I've been through ... is you can't take anything for granted.'
Kuehne has been through plenty.
Hooked on alcohol in his teens, Kuehne was driving drunk in 1995 when he ran a stop sign and had an accident in which he broke his ribs.
After winning the U.S. Amateur and turning pro, he injured his shoulder, which kept him from reaching his potential, and left him without any status going into this year.
Kuehne finally turned it around with a runner-up finish in Houston, and has made enough money to secure his PGA Tour card for next year. Next up was getting to the PGA Championship, knowing it was held at Oak Hill.
'After I made enough money to have status, it was one of my immediate goals to try to figure out how I could get into the PGA,' he said.
Not to worry. The PGA of America offered him an invitation to the final major of the year, and his first as a professional.
He played the 1999 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open as the amateur champion, and played a practice round at Augusta National with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. He was crushing drives back then, but Kuehne wasn't sure where they were going.
Now, he's closer to figuring that part out.
It should help this week, where rain continues to drench Oak Hill, making it play every bit of its 7,134 yards.
But experience?
This isn't the same Oak Hill where Kuehne won his U.S. Amateur.
'I remember it was a lot faster, a lot firmer,' Kuehne said. 'I think with the new tee boxes and everything else, I'll probably hit 12 drivers out there. I hit a lot of irons in the Amateur, but it all depends.'
The pivotal hole for him in 1998 was a massive drive on No. 17, followed by a wedge onto the green to 20 feet for a two-putt par and a 2-and-1 victory.
The 17th is now playing 495 yards.
'I thought about the line I took in the last hole of the match, and I actually hit on the same line today,' he said. 'Only difference is it's 50 yards farther than it was back then. It just got in the fairway. I didn't hit a wedge in like I did back then.'
Still, he has good vibes at Oak Hill.
He showed up Sunday to register and hit a few balls, and driving into Oak Hill brought back fond memories.
'It seemed like it was yesterday that I was here,' he said.
Playing in his first major as a pro, he knows it was much longer.
Related Links:
  • Bio: Hank Kuehne
  • 2003 PGA Championship Home
  • More News from the 2003 PGA Championship
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